Sunday, December 28, 2008

On space and time

The problem with Christmas is that it interferes with the right to freedom of mobility. Hence, as Yuletide approaches each year, I initiate a search programme to find a book or paper of depth, clarity, originality, and elegance, which will sustain me through this bleak period. This year, I was amply rewarded when I discovered On Space and Time, a collection of essays at the interface between physics and philosophy, a matter of days before 'festive' ground-zero.

The book contains lengthy articles by Shahn Majid on duality and self-duality, and Alain Connes on his non-commutative approach to space-time and particle physics, but the outstanding contribution is a 50-page exposition from Roger Penrose of his conformally cyclic cosmology.

With the apparent discovery of dark energy, and the accelerating expansion of the universe, the far future of our universe is representable by de Sitter space-time. Penrose noticed that the future conformal boundary of de Sitter space-time is spacelike, hence it can be joined to the spacelike initial conformal boundary of a Friedmann-Robertson-Walker ('Big Bang') model. The fact that the universe is very small and hot at the beginning, and very large and cold in the far future, is not a problem, argues Penrose, because both the early universe and far future universe contain only conformally invariant, massless particles. Without massive particles, there is no way of defining lengths or times, hence the only physically meaningful structure is the conformal structure, i.e., the causal structure. By compressing the conformal factor towards the far future, and expanding it towards the beginning, the geometry of the future conformal boundary can be joined seamlessly to the initial conformal boundary.

Penrose proposes that the far future of our universe contains only electromagnetic radiation and gravitational radiation. The electromagnetic radiation comes from the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang, from stars, and from the eventual evaporation of black holes. The gravitational radiation, meanwhile, comes mostly from the coalescence of black holes. Penrose proposes that massive particles such as electrons, either annihilate with massive particles of opposite charge (positrons), or decay by some as-yet undiscovered mechanism.

The cycle of Penrose's model is one in which the universe 'begins' in a conformally invariant state, with zero Weyl curvature, but in which there is a normal derivative to the Weyl curvature. This seems to trigger the formation of massive particles. The matter then clumps together into stars and galaxies, such clumping increasing the Weyl curvature and decreasing the Ricci curvature. Eventually, much of the matter is swept into black holes, where the Weyl curvature diverges, but the Ricci curvature is zero. The matter which isn't swept into black holes decays or annihilates into radiation, and the black holes eventually evaporate themselves into radiation. The Weyl curvature thereby returns to zero, all particles are massless again, and conformal invariance resumes. Gravitational radiation, however, never thermalizes, and this appears to be responsible for the normal derivative to the Weyl curvature, which triggers the formation of massive particles in the next cycle.

Two potential problems spring to mind. Firstly, following an argument by Gibbons and Hawking, de Sitter space-time is widely believed to possess a minimum temperature due to its cosmological constant. With the value of the cosmological constant we observe, this temperature is about 10-30 Kelvin. A black hole will only evaporate if the temperature of its horizon is greater than the temperature of surrounding space. The temperature of a black hole is inversely proportional to its mass, and a black hole which grows large enough that its temperature drops below 10-30 Kelvin would never evaporate. However, such a black hole would have a mass approximately equal to the current observable universe, so the formation of such a black hole may well be impossible in a universe whose contents are diluted by the accelerating expansion of dark energy.

The second problem is that if the quantum fields in the far future of our universe can be treated as quantum fields in thermal equilibrium in de Sitter space-time, then because such a universe is eternal, quantum fluctuations ensure the spontaneous generation, at a constant rate, of anything you care to name, including massive particles and black holes. This would prevent our universe from ever reaching an exact state of conformal invariance in the far future. However, because gravitational radiation never reaches thermal equilibrium, one could perhaps argue that the quantum fields in the far future of our universe cannot be treated as quantum fields in thermal equilibrium in de Sitter space-time.

Penrose's proposal remains fascinating and elusive. A perfect antidote to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Root and branch

With hope crumbling through my fingers into disappointment, and my ribcage crushed under the weight of solitude, I stumble out into the damp grey of a denuded winter landscape.

I walk along muddy tracks through leaf-strewn woods, summer canopy now gone, skeletal trees exposed to the featureless sky. Fungi feed voraciously on the body of one fallen sentinel; elsewhere, different species of moss compete to draw succour on the bole of an uprooted comrade.
Then, at the end of the path, I find him beside a shallow pool, contorted branches frozen in agony. At night, his suffering becomes animate, and he bellows with rage and pain, hammering a lignum fist into the stagnant water. The others look away, and quake as his dying anger throbs inconsolably.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ferrari's 'general help'

A Captain ought, among all the other actions of his, endeavour with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker. (Macchiavelli, N. 1521. The Art of War, Book VI).

Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo suggested this week that Bernie Ecclestone was running F1 as a dictator, that he should step aside sooner rather than later, and that the F1 teams required both a greater slice of the commercial revenues from F1, and a greater 'transparency' about those revenues.

In response, Bernard was moved to publicly specify, for the first time, the extra financial benefit Ferrari receives from the commercial revenues, and to also acknowledge that Ferrari have for many years been the beneficiaries of something he termed 'general help':

"The only thing [Montezemolo] has not mentioned is the extra money Ferrari get above all the other teams and all the extra things Ferrari have had for years – the 'general help' they are considered to have had in Formula One.

"Ferrari get so much more money than everyone else. They know exactly what they get, they are not that stupid, although they are not that bright, either. They get about $80 million (about £54 million) more. When they win the constructors' championship, which they did this year, they got $80 million more than if McLaren had won it."

General help. Now there's an interesting phrase. Of what does this general help consist, one wonders? Perhaps Bernie and the governing body, the FIA, have been giving advice to Ferrari team members on how to ensure that their motions are regular as clockwork each morning. Or perhaps the FIA have provided tips on the best holiday destinations, advice on how to improve one's memory, and methods for getting a good night's sleep.

The Formula 1 teams have recently formed a united front (FOTA, the Formula One Teams Association), to represent their interests against those of the FIA, and the private equity company, CVC, which owns the commerical rights to F1, and whose F1 companies are operated by Bernie Ecclestone. Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo has been acting as the spokesman for FOTA, given that Ferrari wield the greatest amount of political clout.

FOTA are seeking a greater proportion of the commercial revenue generated by F1, and Bernie is seeking to prevent this with a divide-and-conquer technique. By implying that Ferrari have indeed received something more than financial assistance from the powers-that-be, Bernie is seeking to fuel the beliefs amongst Ferrari's rivals that F1 is not a level playing field. The phrase 'general help' is sufficiently ambiguous that it can be clarified and neutralised at a later stage, but is, nevertheless, designed to make McLaren-Mercedes, Renault, BMW, Toyota et al wonder if they really can trust Ferrari.

One hopes that FOTA have anticipated this tactic...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Amanda Gefter

I've recently stumbled upon Amanda Gefter, an editor for the Opinion section of New Scientist. Amanda studied the philosophy of physics at the London School of Economics, and writes about cosmology, so I guess there is a certain similarity of background. Moreover, Amanda is also very interested in science and religion. A couple of months ago she wrote a timely article which drew attention to the latest tactic of the creationists, (and their apologists, some of whom, it must be said, write for British newspapers):

"They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul."

Amanda also spoke to Michael Heller earlier in the year, and concluded that

"Heller comes across as a contemplative, kind and brilliant man with an impressive intellectual range, flitting easily between talk of complex philosophical ideas and sophisticated mathematical physics. (I was intrigued that his current work is focused on ridding physics of the big bang singularity - despite the fact that many Catholics have latched on to the idea of the singularity as the space left for God and his creative power.)"

I wonder if Amanda also gets asked "What on Earth is the philosophy of physics?"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The coldest start to December since...

Whilst many news outlets reported that the beginning of December in the UK was the coldest since 1976, the reality is slightly more subtle, and depends upon the definition of 'the start of December'.

Meteorologist Philip Eden reports that the 1st to the 7th, and the 1st to the 8th were the coldest since 1998; the 1st to the 9th was the coldest since 1980; the first to the 10th was the coldest since 1976; the 1st to the 11th was the coldest since 1981; and the 1st to the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th were merely the coldest since 1991.

Mark Hughes wins Irish sports book of the year

In September, I predicted that Crashed and Byrned, the story of Tommy Byrne's rise to the cusp of Formula 1 stardom, and subsequent decline, would "become the most acclaimed sporting book of the year." Like all McCabism predictions, this hasn't quite turned out to be totally accurate. Nevertheless, author Mark Hughes was this week awarded the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year for 2008, which by my standards, counts as a preternatural level of judgement and foresight.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A comprehensible universe

One of the most neglected books published in 2008 was Father George Coyne and the Reverend Michael Heller's short work, A Comprehensible Universe. Coyne and Heller provide an urbane and informative guide to the development of the scientific method, and its historical relationship to Greek philosophy and the Judaeo-Christian religion. Both authors possess a professional understanding of science and cosmology, and provide a reliable, non-technical guide to the subject matter.

I've always considered that philosophers and scientists should work in castles or palaces, hence this recollection from the Preface particularly caught my attention:

Both authors met at the Vatican Astronomical Observatory in the Pontifical Palace amidst the bucolic surroundings of Castel Gandolfo where the papal summer residence is located. During long evenings, when the autumn winds went howling through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases in the palace,...they started working on the English version of the manuscript. While working together at Castel Gandolfo it was often easier and quicker for the co-authors to communicate via e-mail than to search for one another in the vastness of the palace.

Coincidentally, there is an excellent Richard Dawkins interview with George Coyne on the former's website. Dawkins allows Coyne to speak at length, and whilst he naturally challenges some of Coyne's opinions, the interview is far from confrontational.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Near-death experiences

Christian author Bryan Appleyard writes an article for The Sunday Times which argues that near-death experiences (NDEs) are evidence that the mind can be separated from the brain, and there actually is an afterlife.

Bryan refers to the "consistency and clarity of these [NDE] reports across cultures and time zones," which is misleading, not only because people of different religions see different religious figures in NDEs, but as Carol Zaleski detailed, "through her comparative studies of medieval and modern NDEs, many features of these experiences vary in ways that correspond to cultural expectations. A striking instance of this is the minimal role played by judgment and damnation in modern NDEs; unlike the medieval cases, the modern life-review tends to be therapeutic in emphasis. In view of this, Zaleski ascribes the experiences to the religious imagination."

As Appleyard himself points out, "all the evidence [for NDEs] remains anecdotal, and even the most impressive stories...tend to look less convincing on closer examination." Moreover, as Michael Shermer explains, the hallucination of flying is triggered by atropine, out-of-body experiences are triggered by ketamines, the perception of the world enlarging or shrinking is triggered by dimethyltryptamine, the retrieval of long-forgotten memories is triggered by methylene-dioxyamphetamine, and a feeling of oneness with the cosmos is triggered by LSD. "The fact that there are receptor sites in the brain for such artificially processed chemicals means that there are naturally produced chemicals in the brain that, under certain conditions..., can induce any or all of the experiences typically associated with a NDE," (Why people believe weird things, p80).

Bryan attempts to support a dualistic approach to the ontology of the world, by arguing that thoughts cannot collide with bricks. "Dualism," says Appleyard, "means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs." However, in general, an object cannot collide with a process. For example, a brick cannot collide with evaporation, but this is hardly evidence of a fundamental ontological duality. Moreover, if non-collidability enables the mind and the brain to be separated, it follows that computer software can also be separated from computer hardware. Presumably, a terminating program will briefly float at ceiling level in the IT department, above the computer it was running on, before it enters a cybernetic afterlife.

Most remarkably, Bryan takes huge liberties with the interpretation of quantum theory, and claims that it supports mind-brain dualism, quoting with approval the eccentric opinions of Henry Stapp. "'The observer,' Stapp tells me, 'is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics'." This is the familiar canard that observers are a crucial part of the quantum world because it is observers who trigger wave-function collapse. In fact, wave-function collapse is triggered by any measurement-like interaction, and observers are completely superfluous to the process. Appleyard even claims that "quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room." Quantum non-locality pertains to non-local interactions between particles separated over large distances, and entails no such possibility of separating the mind from the brain.

There seems to be a quite remarkable degree of selection and manipulation of the facts going on here. Appleyard is twisting some well-known canards in the interpretation of quantum theory, to provide a post-hoc justification for a belief about the nature of the mind which is crucial to his religious world-view. Honesty and integrity seem to have taken something of a backseat here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


If airports are the aeronautical equivalent of seaports, then why don't we have aeronautical equivalents of harbours? In particular, why don't we have aeronautical correlates of Monte Carlo, places where millionaires can dock their aircraft, spend some time in a casino, and then party with their rich friends on the wings of their opulent flying palaces?

I'm thinking of a sort of Cloud City here, which, in the absence of anti-gravity generators, could perhaps be suspended by the simultaneous downward thrust from a hundred or so jet engines, or just by, well, lots of helium balloons. The technology is already there, so let's do it, I say.

The naughtiness factor

The British Journal of Tabloid Mathematics (aka The Sun), proposes a formula for the naughtiness factor of a low-cut dress:

O=NP(20C+B)/75 ,

where N is the number of nipples exposed, from zero to two, or expressed as fractions of nipple shown; P is the percentage of exposed frontal surface area; C is the cup size factor, set to 1 for an A-cup, 2 for a B-cup, 3 for a C-cup, and 5 for D-cup or greater; and B is the bust measurement in inches. The Sun claim that a value of O greater than 100 indicates obscenity.

The Sun claim that the Roberto Cavalli dress worn by Britney Spears this week "showed off around 70 per cent of her breasts, and experts at Wonderbra think she is a 32D. Without any nipple exposure, Britney’s formula works out as 0x70x(20x5+32)/75 = 123.2 ."

Unfortunately, the suggested formula entails that if zero nipples are exposed (N=0), then the naughtiness factor is always zero. I propose modifying the formula as follows:

O=[(N+1)/1] P(20C+B)/75

This enables us to recover a value of O=123.2 for Britney's dress.

Physicists vs. economists

J. Doyne Farmer of the Sante Fe Institute, makes an interesting claim in Nature about the two cultures involved in quantitative finance, namely those of physicists and economists:

"Quantitative hedge funds tend to divide into those run by economists and those run by scientists from other disciplines, such as physics, maths or computer science...This distinction is not just a matter of professional pride and disciplinary boundaries...economists and physicists traditionally approach the problem of risk control in different ways. Risk control is the art of determining the likelihood of large and unexpected price changes happening in the future. It is well known that extremely large changes, and financial crashes in particular, are more frequent than would be expected from a 'normal' statistical distribution. Physicists tend to favour a 'power law' mathematical description to model the heavy tails of these distributions, giving a pessimistic view of the likelihood of large price movements. By contrast, the economists...spoke about price movements in terms of standard deviations, a terminology that is only relevant for normal distributions. This demonstrates that they were not thinking about the problem in the right way...Wall Street should follow the conservative approach to risk control that arises from properly modelling risks as power laws."

It's certainly true that econophysics recognized the existence of power law distributions, as this excellent paper by Dean Rickles exemplifies. I suspect, in addition, that there are also plenty of financial institutions in which physicists and mathematicians were responsible for developing the quantitative models, but in which economists and financial managers were responsible for the interpretation and application thereof. It is the latter group of individuals who would have largely been responsible for not incorporating the consequences of power law distributions into their value-at-risk calculations.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Diodes made of neurons

There are three distinct positions in the philosophy of the mind of greatest contemporary relevance:

1) Eliminative materialism: The brain exists, but the mind does not.

2) Identity theory: The mind and the brain both exist, but the mind can be reduced to the brain in the specific sense that the mind can be identified with the brain.

3) Functionalism: The mind and the brain both exist, and the mind super-
venes on the brain, but the mind cannot be identified with the brain.

Functionalism embraces the notion of substrate-independence, the claim that the mind could supervene upon multiple substrates, of which the brain just happens to be one example; if there are multiple substrates which could support the mind, then one cannot identify the mind with the brain.

The December issue of Nature Physics reports that Ofer Feinerman and colleagues have developed a technique to grow neuronal cell cultures capable of performing any desired computation. By encouraging the self-organization of neuronal networks, Feinerman et al were able to synthesize neuronal diodes, AND gates, and threshold devices. These components are sufficient to assemble any desired logical circuit.

Hence, Feinerman et al appear to have experimentally demonstrated substrate-independence. Diodes, for example, can either be made of neuronal networks, or they can be made of semiconductors.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ricky Gervais, String theory, and Quimballs

Radio 5 are getting into something of a Christmas routine these days. First it's the Mark Kermode Advent Calendar, then Jeremy Clarkson pops up to flog his annual DVD, and then shortly afterwards Ricky Gervais makes an appearance to promote his latest DVD. Ricky, however, is something of a McCabism hero, and, in this year's chat with Simon Mayo, he points out that: (i) the egg came before the chicken; (ii) most people are stupid; and (iii) strings cannot be elementary particles because you can cut them in half.

This is an important point, because physicists such as Lee Smolin argue that the notion of unification requires the different kinds of elementary particle to be merely different states of a single underlying elementary entity, and argue that string theory permits this, where the notion of a point particle doesn't: "If the elementary particle was something of a certain size, there would be no difficulty imagining it to exist in different states. It might be, for example, that the particle could take on different shapes. But it is hard to imagine how something that is just a point, that has no shape and takes up no space, could exist in different states or configurations...String theory resolves this paradox, because it says that the end of the process of reductionism is that the most fundamental entities are one dimensional strings and not is [the] different modes of vibration of the string that are understood in string theory as being the different elementary particles," (The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, p65).

Gervais, however, points out that strings are actually composed of quimballs, which, in turn, are composed of two-for-quarkels and a strumpet. It's coruscating stuff from Reading's finest.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

God or multiverse?

I do not want to predict the future. I once predicted my own future. I had a very firm prediction. I knew that I was going to die in the hospital at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow near where I worked. I would go there for all my physical examinations. Once, when I had an ulcer, I was lying there in bed, thinking I knew this was the place where I was going to die. Why? Because I knew I would always be living in Russia. Moscow was the only place in Russia where I could do physics. This was the only hospital for the Academy of Sciences, and so on. It was quite completely predictable.

Then I ended up in the United States. On one of my returns to Moscow, I looked at this hospital at the Academy of Sciences, and it was in ruins. There was a tree growing from the roof. And I looked at it and I thought, What can you predict? What can you know about the future?
(Andrei Linde).

Discover magazine has an interesting article by Tim Folger on the anthropic principle and the multiverse hypothesis. The article raises two important questions, the first of which concerns the power of scientific methodology to confirm the existence of other universes:

1) If you have a theory which explains the nature of our universe, and which entails, as a by-product, the existence of other universes, and if such a theory makes a prediction about our universe which is subsequently confirmed by observation or experiment, and if there is no other theory available with the same explanatory and predictive power, then does this constitute indirect evidence for the existence of those other universes? In other words, even if one cannot directly confirm the existence of other universes, does the confirmation of a theory which predicts other universes constitute indirect confirmation of the multiverse hypothesis?

The second question concerns the purported choice between God or a multiverse:

2) If there is no theory with explanatory and predictive power which entails that our life-permitting universe is the only logically possible universe, then is there a rational choice between the existence of a multiverse, in which all types of universe exist, or the selection and creation of our universe by a supernatural deity? What rational method could be employed to make such a choice?

The second question here presents something of a false dichotomy. One could, alternatively, accept the provisional inadequacy of our theoretical capability, but not abandon the notion that our universe is the only logically possible universe. One could also alternatively suggest that our universe was selected and created, not by a supernatural deity in the sense described within religious scripture, but by a non-supernatural intelligent being within another universe. One could suggest that our universe is a program running on a computer in another universe, or that our universe was created in a laboratory within another universe. These latter options are special types of multiverse hypothesis because they require the existence of other universes in which the creating agency exists, but they do have the novelty of combining the multiverse hypothesis with the notion that our universe was created by conscious choice, (although that itself is a special type of physical process).

An organic internet

On the Earth, evolution by natural selection has only evolved animals which communicate over distance by sound waves, and by light in-between the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Is it possible, however, for a species to evolve organic radio/microwave-length transmitters and receivers, with which they can mutually communicate? In other words, is it possible for biological organisms to evolve transmitters and receivers as organs, or parts of organs? In effect, could a species evolve the organic equivalent of bluetooth connectivity between each other?

The energy requirements for such a communication system would be biologically onerous, but could a species not evolve its own rechargeable biochemical batteries, to supply the necessary energy?

Furthermore, if such a communication system could evolve by natural selection, and if an intelligent species on some planet were to evolve such a communication system, could an organic internet, a type of collective intelligence, not evolve on some planet?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Billions and trillions

I received the 2008 Pensions Scheme Update this week from the Trustees appointed by my employer. A covering letter from the Secretary to the Trustee, pointed out that "The recent turbulence in the financial markets has caused concern for many members."

Turbulence. That's an interesting choice of term. It implies that financial stability will be restored in the near future. When one thinks of turbulence, one thinks, perhaps, of the choppy wake from a motorboat, which might make things slightly unpleasant for a short period, but which will ultimately dissipate. More accurate alternatives to 'turbulence' include 'catastrophic shock wave', and 'collapse', but then I guess such phrases fail to reassure the anxious pension contributor...

Within the Pensions Update document was a subsection which explained what the credit crunch is. It was quite a nice summary, but it did contain the following paragraph. See if you can spot the error:

House prices in the US have now fallen by around 20% and may fall further. As the value of the packaged loans began to fall, the banks had to write down the value of these loans on their balance sheets. The International Monetary Fund estimate that banks will suffer losses of around $1 trillion, that's $1,000,000,000. The concern about falling property values has spread worldwide, for example to include mortgages in the UK as well as loans on commercial property.

Nice to know our pensions are in safe hands.

Extra ordinary minds

This week, I visited an operation which has recently been bought by a French company, and which has consequently undergone a re-branding exercise.

As part of this re-branding, the slogan 'Extraordinary minds at work', was coined. Perhaps, however, something was lost in translation, as this teacup attests...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Light Sabers and fluorescent tubes

Watching the repeats of the original Star Wars trilogy on television recently, I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, the woeful CGI scenes added by Lucasfilm in the 1990s, stand out like a gangrenous thumb. Not only do they fail to add anything to the orginal cut, they detract significantly from it. It is as if Leonardo da Vinci has been given the opportunity to revisit the Mona Lisa, and has chosen to spray-paint a couple of ears on her.

One particular piece of CGI, featuring a Landspeeder driving into Mos Eisley, is so poor that it would be castigated were it to appear in a PlayStation game; it's out of scale, out of perspective, has no variation in focus, and has an ersatz quality of light and colour.
The second thing I noticed is that the Light Sabres (note the spelling) produce light in a manner which resembles neon lighting, or fluorescent tubes. Sure enough, it seems that when Nelson Shin designed the Light Sabre, he reasoned that since the Light Sabre is made of light, it should look 'a little shaky', just like a fluorescent tube.

As explained with exemplary clarity by Dr Chris Smith, neon lights and fluorescent lights generate visible light by distinct mechanisms. In a neon light (or lights using other noble gases, such as argon, krypton or xenon), the tube is filled with a gas that simply emits visible light when stimulated with an electrical current, and the tube itself is transparent to the passage of this light.

In contrast, in a fluorescent tube, the visible light is generated by the interaction of two distinct light-generating processes. The tube in such a light is filled with a gas, in which luminescence is once again stimulated by an electrical current. In the case of a fluorescent light tube, the flow of free electrons excites bound electrons in a gas of mercury atoms, which then emit ultraviolet light when the excited electrons return to their initial energy levels. The light emitted by the gas in the tube is then absorbed by a fluorescent material, called a phosphor, which is deposited on the inner surface of the tube. This raises the energy levels of electrons in the phosphor, which then emit visible light when those electrons return to their former state. The colour of the light emitted by the phosphor depends upon the precise blend of metallic and rare-earth salts used.

Bloodhound SSC

'4.1 lactating cows', might sound like a description of Girls Aloud after their firstborn have been delivered, but it is in fact the equivalent to the CO2 output of Bloodhound SSC, Britain's latest World Land Speed Record challenger.

Not content with breaking the sound barrier, Richard Noble, Andy Green and the team are back again, this time aiming to hit 1,000mph. As explained by Gordon Cruickshank in the December issue of Motorsport magazine, Bloodhound SSC will be equipped with a Eurojet EJ200 turbofan engine from the Typhoon fighter, a solid fuel rocket triggered by a hydrogen peroxide oxidiser, and an 800bhp V12 internal combustion engine, which powers both the pump for the hyrodgen peroxide, and the vehicle hydraulics, and also acts as the starter motor for the jet. The pump itself will come from Blue Streak, Britain's abortive ballistic missile programme from the 1950s.

The solid fuel rocket sits atop the vehicle, raising the centre of gravity, hence the designers have been forced to widen the track at the rear to lower the roll centre of the car. The rear wheels are therefore out-rigged, but shrouded in double-needle fairings. Another technical challenge is provided by the fact that the fuel consumption changes the weight distribution substantially over the course of a run. One tonne of hydrogen peroxide and half a tonne of jet fuel are expended on each such run, reducing the weight of the 6.5 tonne car to 5 tonnes in 80 seconds. To compensate, moveable winglets will be employed above the wheels to maintain constant wheel loadings.

It's all far more interesting than bovine lactation.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

FRES and Systems Engineering

FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) is the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) procurement programme to deliver a fleet of medium-weight, armoured vehicles to the British Army, which is rapidly deployable, network-enabled, capable of operating across the spectrum of operations, and protected against the most likely threats. Initiated in 2001, the FRES programme has yet to deliver any vehicles, or any definitive vehicle designs.

In House of Commons written answers, November 20th 2008, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Quentin Davies, provides cost estimates for a number of defence procurement projects. In the case of FRES, Mr Davies states:

The estimated cost for the assessment phase as set out in the Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007 is £618 million. The cost of this programme will not be fixed until the main investment decision is taken.

Just to be clear, that's £618 million spent upon thinking about what to do, rather than actually doing anything. It's not £618 million spent upon designing, constructing, testing, validating and developing machinery; it's £618,000,000 spent upon prevarication and procrastination.

Perhaps the most pernicious contribution to this type of economic waste is attributable to the Systems Engineering movement, which has infiltrated large sections of industry and government. Systems Engineering is a top-down approach to large engineering projects, which expends great time, effort and ritual in codifying and formalising the blindingly obvious. The fundamental fallacy of Systems Engineering is the tacit belief that complex engineering systems are best managed by defining, often in very abstract terms, top-level requirements, capabilities and stakeholders, and by then breaking those top-level entities down into sub-requirements, sub-capabilities and sub-stakeholders, all considered in abstraction from specific technologies. Systems Engineering often requires Systems Houses to expend large amounts of time and money before crucial procurement decisions are made, and therefore constitutes a form of institutionalised procrastination. Intellectually, Systems Engineering has never progressed beyond the facile observation that complex engineering systems are really 'systems of systems'.

The history of FRES reveals the ubiquity of such Systems Engineering thinking. The House of Commons Defence Committee report on the FRES programme, published in February 2007, pointed out that:

Between 2001 and 2003 the MoD commissioned Alvis Vickers to carry out 'concept work' on [FRES]. There appears to be little tangible output from this concept work which cost the MoD a combined total of £192 million.

In 2004 the MoD announced a two year Initial Assessment Phase (IAP) for the FRES programme—since extended to July 2007. Atkins has been appointed by the MoD as 'Systems House' to the FRES project, and nine Technology Demonstrator Programmes (TDPs) have been awarded. The TDPs will culminate in a 'trial of truth' in the summer of 2007.

Trials of three prospective Utility Vehicles took place in 2007, but whilst General Dynamics's Piranha V was provisionally announced as the winner in May 2008, no production order has followed.

In October 2007, the Ministry of Defence announced that "due to the complexity of the project", Thales UK and Boeing were chosen as the "preferred bidder for the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) Systems of Systems Integrator (SOSI) role...The SOSI will provide independent support to the MoD by bringing expert programme management and system of systems engineering skills to the FRES programme." Apparently without a trace of irony, Defence Minister Lord Drayson said: "This announcement, almost two months ahead of schedule, demonstrates the excellent progress now being made on FRES. The selection of the SOSI is a key part of our innovative acquisition strategy designed to ensure that we deliver the best solution for the Army as quickly as possible."

Here we see the self-sustaining aspect to Systems Engineering: when it is responsible for the failure of a project, it provides generalised diagnoses of why the project failed, and prescribes more Systems Engineering as the solution. And there's certainly no disputing that FRES is an "innovative acquisition strategy."

As the Defence Committee report states, "The MoD’s attempts to meet its medium-weight vehicle requirement have been a sorry story of indecision, changing requirements and delay. It is high time the MoD decided where its priorities lay." And at the root of this shambles, lies Systems Engineering.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

How to design a classic motor racing circuit

Hermann Tilke is, I'm sure, a pleasant, compassionate human being, who loves his wife, dotes on his children, and is nice to his mum. And, if Hermann Tilke had become, say, a tax inspector rather than a Formula 1 circuit designer, then I'm sure that someone else, just like Hermann, would also have introduced a collection of bland, insipid, unimaginative, life-force draining circuits into Grand Prix racing. The trend in Formula 1 circuit design is determined by the economic logic of modern Formula 1, rather than the predilections of one particular German architect.

The revenue streams which drive modern Formula 1, are dependent upon maximising the exposure of mass television audiences to international brand-names. Such exposure requires: (i) ultra-safe circuits, in order that the sensitive modern audience will not be exposed to death or injury, and in order that those precious brand-values will not be damaged by association with death and injury; (ii) circuits which, from the perspective of television camera angles, maxmise the period of time over which a stable image is presented of the brand-names on cars and trackside banners; and (iii) circuits which minimise initial construction costs, given that the financial structure of modern Formula 1 entails that the individual circuits hosting Grands Prix struggle to make a profit.

There are only two types of classic motor racing circuit: those shaped by the topography of the natural landscape, and those shaped by the connectivity of a cityscape which has grown organically, rather than by means of urban planning. Classic circuits need gradient, camber, restricted fields of view, overhanging trees, irregular surfaces, and a variety of corner radii. And, crucially, classic cirucits need challenging corners. That means corners which penalise a driving error with a serious crash, not merely a trip across a tarmac apron.

None of which is of any concern to Hermann Tilke. One of Hermann's first tasks was to butcher the awe-inspiring natural curves of the Osterreichring, in Austria's Styrian mountains, into a flat, slow-corner dirge. Since then, he has presented us with abominations such as Bahrain and Shanghai, but was, I must acknowledge, lauded when the new Istanbul circuit contained a challenging fast, triple-apex left-hander...with a run-off area the size of Luxembourg.

Last week, the FIA GT championship raced in Argentina on a mountain circuit, Petrero de Los Funes (pictured), shaped by the lake in a volcanic caldera. The GT series organiser, Stephane Ratel, described the circuit in Autosport as "the Bathurst of South America," and explained: "From the beginning the idea was to have a very fast circuit. The legendary circuits are usually very fast, very challenging, natural circuits not designed by computers."

Not designed by computer: Imagine! Surely any serious person understands that the priority should be to maximise safety and revenue, and to design by means of the computer. Anything else is simply irresponsible.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cosmogenic drift

According to current mathematical physics, there are many aspects of our physical universe which are contingent rather than necessary. These include such things as the values of the numerous free parameters in the standard model of particle physics, and the parameters which specify the initial conditions in general relativistic models of the universe. The values of these parameters cannot be theoretically derived, and need to be determined by experiment and observation.

Lee Smolin proposed that the values of these parameters can be explained by postulating that we live in a population of universes evolving by natural selection. He suggests that in those universes where black holes form, a child universe is created inside the event horizon of the black hole. Specifically, Smolin's proposal is that "quantum effects prevent the formation of singularities, at which time starts or stops. If this is true, then time does not end in the centers of black holes, but continues into some new region of space-time...Going back towards the alleged first moment of our universe, we find also that our Big Bang could just be the result of such a bounce in a black hole that formed in some other region of space and time." (The Life of the Cosmos, 1997, p93).

However, Smolin's scenario cannot explain why our universe is relativistic rather than non-relativistic, and it cannot explain why our universe is a quantum universe rather than a classical universe, because the occurrence of black holes requires a relativistic universe, and the occurrence of a 'bounce' inside the horizon of a black hole requires a quantum universe.

Smolin's hypothesis depends upon the assumption that there is a quantum relativistic universe at the outset. One can ask for an explanation of why there should be such a universe, rather than a universe in which, say, Newtonian gravity governs the large-scale structure of space-time, or in which classical mechanics and classical field theories govern the behaviour of any particles and fields which exist. The existence of a quantum relativistic universe seems to be contingent rather than necessary. There is, therefore, a need to explain the existence of a quantum relativistic universe.

My own proposal for such an explanation is to posit the existence of a random process, cosmogenic drift, which was responsible for the evolution of a quantum relativistic universe prior to the operation of cosmological natural selection.

In evolutionary biology it is known that evolution by natural selection is not the only important evolution process, and that in the absence of selection pressures, the evolution of a population will be dominated by random variations in the genome, a process called genetic drift. Similarly, the proposal made here suggests that the values of the parameters of physics cannot be wholly explained by cosmological evolution by natural selection. However, whilst genetic drift is a process which applies to a population of biological entities reproducing with inheritance and random mutation, the cosmological process postulated here is not restricted to reproducing entities, and in particular is postulated as a necessary prelude to the creation of a population of reproducing universes.

To best explain cosmogenic drift, we shall need a concept from evolutionary biology known as the fitness landscape. Each point on this landscape corresponds to a different combination of genes, and the height of the landscape at each point represents the average number of progeny, produced by an organism with that combination of genes, which themselves survive to reproduce. The height of the landscape therefore represents the 'fitness' of each possible genotype. Each progenitor produces offspring with genomes in a small neighbourhood of the progenitor's position in the landscape. In those parts of the landscape where selection pressures are weak, none of the progeny will have a greater fitness. When selection pressures are weak, the fitness landscape is therefore almost flat. Evolution of a biological population across a flat part of the fitness landscape will be driven by random diffusion. In contrast, in those parts of the landscape where selection operates, the landscape will possess gradient. In these parts of the landscape, some of the progeny produced within a small neighbourhood of one genotype will lie at a slightly greater height because they yield a greater number of progeny which themselves survive to reproduce. As a consequence, the population will come to be dominated by this new genotype, and will take a step-up to a slightly greater height in the fitness landscape. This is biological evolution by natural selection.

Smolin suggested that there is a cosmic fitness landscape analogous to the biological one, with each point corresponding to a combination of values for the parameters of physics, and the height at each point representing the number of progeny produced by a universe with that combination of parameters. I would like to extend this proposal by postulating that the lowest level of the cosmic fitness landscape is a flat region corresponding to all the possible types of universe which do not reproduce. Each point in the cosmic landscape here has a height of zero because none of these universes yield any progeny, and the landscape is flat because natural selection cannot operate in the absence of reproduction. Evolution does, nevertheless, occur in this part of the cosmic landscape. Universes, I propose, evolve by random diffusion in flat parts of the cosmic fitness landscape. In other words, universes which cannot reproduce evolve by cosmogenic drift. Eventually, however, a universe evolving by random cosmogenic drift will evolve into a quantum relativistic universe, a universe type capable of reproducing. The part of the cosmic fitness landscape containing universes capable of reproduction corresponds to a mountain in the landscape. Here there are gradients, and evolution by natural selection operates, as suggested by Smolin, in the same manner it operates in the biological fitness landscape.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nothing's plenty

With a tundric wind driving intermittent squalls of rain across the barren agriscape outside, I decided to stay inside today and re-read Ian Aitchison's excellent 1985 review of the concept of the vacuum in quantum field theory, (Contemporary Physics , Vol.26, No.4, pp333-391).

In the popular literature, the vacuum of quantum field theory is characterised as a seething torrent of evanescent 'virtual' particles, popping in and out of existence. It is crucial to appreciate, however, that there are different types of vacuum within quantum field theory. Firstly, there is the vacuum of a free field. The states of a free field are represented in quantum field theory by the elements of a vector space called a Fock space. The vacuum state of a free field is represented by a vector in Fock space with unique properties, called the vacuum vector. Then there is the vacuum state of an interacting field, which is not represented by the vacuum vector in any Fock space. In quantum electrodynamics, for example, there is: (i) the vacuum state of the electromagnetic field; (ii) the vacuum state of the electron field; and (iii) the vacuum state of the interacting electron-electromagnetic field, and all three are distinct.

The popular notion of the vacuum, with its innumerable collection of virtual particles, corresponds to the interacting vacuum, sometimes also called the 'dressed' vacuum. The experimentally detectable effects ascribed to the dressed vacuum are referred to as 'vacuum fluctuations'. However, the free-field vacuum is the only vacuum which is theoretically well-defined in quantum field theory. As Prugovecki states, "the actual computations performed in perturbation theory actually begin with expressions for [free-field states] states,...formulated in Fock space, and then progress through a chain of computations dictated by Feynman rules, which have no direct bearing to a mathematically rigorous realization of a non-Fock representation...Hence, in conventional QFT [quantum field theory] the existence of...a corresponding unique and global 'dressed vacuum', is merely a conjecture rather than a mathematical fact," (Principles of Quantum General Relativity, World Scientific, 1995, p198-199). Rugh and Zinkernagel concur, arguing that the popular picture of the production and annihilation of virtual particles in the 'interacting' vacuum, "is actually misleading as no production or annihilation takes place in the vacuum. The point is rather that, in the ground state of the full interacting field system, the number of quanta (particles) for any of the fields is not well-defined," (The quantum vacuum and the cosmological constant problem, 2002, p12, footnote 27.)

Aitchison's approach to virtual particles is to argue that they are basically a consequence of the so-called perturbative approach to the representation of interactions in quantum field theory. In quantum theory, the total energy of a system is represented by something called the Hamiltonian H. This Hamiltonian can be broken into a free Hamiltonian H0 and an interaction Hamiltonian HI:

H = H0 + HI

In quantum field theory, the free Hamiltonian is an operator defined upon Fock space. In quantum theory generally, an eigenstate of some operator represents a state of the system in which the quantity represented by that operator possesses a definite value. The vacuum vector in Fock space is the lowest energy eigenstate of the free Hamiltonian. There is another operator on Fock space called the particle number operator, and the vacuum vector is the zero eigenstate of this operator, indicating the presence of zero number of particles. Hence, the vacuum vector in Fock space represents both the lowest energy state of the free field, and the state in which zero particles exist. It is also the unique vector which is invariant under space-time translations; this guarantees that the choice of vacuum state is not dependent upon the position in space or time which the observer occupies.

Now, in perturbative quantum field theory, interactions are represented in Fock space, the state space for the free field, by also defining the interaction Hamiltonian HI as an operator on the Fock space. Aitchison argues that a (perturbative) interacting vacuum is an eigenstate of the full Hamiltonian H defined on the free field Fock space, and is therefore a superposition of the eigenstates of the free field Hamiltonian H0. The various eigenstates of the free field Hamiltonian are also eigenstates of the particle number operator, but an eigenstate of the full Hamiltonian is not. The number of particles in the ground state of the interacting system does not itself possess a definite number of particles, but rather is a superposition of all the definite particle number eigenstates of the free field Hamiltonian. According to Aitchison, the interacting vacuum contains arbitrary numbers of virtual particles only in the sense that the interacting vacuum is a superposition of definite particle number eigenstates of the free Hamiltonian. The so-called fluctuations of the interacting vacuum, are fluctuations over the free field eigenstates within the superposition. Virtual particle transitions appear not to conserve energy-momentum, and never appear in the incoming and outgoing states of a reaction, because reactions in perturbative quantum field theory are represented as transitions from free field eigenstates to interacting field eigenstates, and back again.

This is extremely illuminating, but Aitchison's interpretation needs to be treated with some caution. For a start, Haag's theorem demonstrates that a free-field Fock space cannot directly represent the interacting field vacuum, (see Earman and Fraser for an excellent discussion). Haag's theorem basically proves that a Fock space cannot possess the vacuum vector of a free-field and the vacuum vector of an interacting field. A vacuum vector is required to be invariant under space-time translations, and a Fock space possesses, up to phase, a unique translation-invariant vector. The Fock space vacuum vector cannot be the ground state of both the free Hamiltonian and the full Hamiltonian, and the vacuum vector is the unique vector invariant under space-time translations.

The ongoing absence of a mathematically well-defined representation of interacting quantum field systems, and the failure of string theory to provide a viable alternative, makes it very difficult to say anything meaningful about what the interacting quantum vacuum really is.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Slavica Ecclestone files for divorce

It's said that the only sure thing in Formula 1 is that Bernie never loses.

Given that Slavica may take between a third and a half of Bernie's $2 billion fortune, this may be the exception...

As The Times points out, it is not merely the divorce settlement itself, but the fact that the family's F1 ownership rights are in the name of Slavica. And this quote particularly intrigued me:

Friends of Mrs Ecclestone said she believed that her husband would be keen to avoid a legal battle in which his affairs would be pored over in open court..."She’s going to hang on to what she’s got," a friend said. "The settlement is going to be kept absolutely hush-hush. She’s got so much on him that he will not want to go to court."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lawrence Krauss on why there's something rather than nothing

In 1973, Ed Tryon proposed that the total energy of our universe might be zero, and that our universe might be a fluctuation of the quantum vacuum. This idea was adopted within inflationary cosmology by luminaries such as Alan Guth, who claim that the flat universe predicted by inflation is just such a universe of zero total energy. Today in New Scientist, a full 35 years after Tryon's proposal, Lawrence Krauss attempts to use this idea to explain why there is something rather than nothing:

"The key that with zero total energy, Aquinas's puzzle is resolvable. And once the energy fluctuations of quantum mechanics are thrown into the mix, the idea of something arising from nothing can become not just possible, but necessary."

Tryon conjectured that all conserved quantities have a net value of zero for the universe as a whole, and, noting that in Newtonian theory the gravitational potential energy is negative, he proposed that there might be a sense in which the negative gravitational energy of the universe cancels the positive mass-energy.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out in the past, Tryon’s idea runs aground on a fact that Guth himself mentions:

"In general relativity there is no coordinate-invariant way of expressing the [gravitational] energy in a space that is not asymptotically flat, so many experts prefer to say that the total energy is undefined," (footnote, p6). As Robert Wald also points out, "it has long been recognized that there is no meaningful local notion of gravitational energy density in general relativity," (p20).

Let us suppose, however, that this is merely a technical issue, which might ultimately be resolvable, and that there might be a well-defined sense in which the total energy of a flat universe is, indeed, zero. Even then, the notion that the universe was created by a fluctuation of the quantum vacuum, cannot explain why there is something rather than nothing, for the existence of the quantum vacuum pre-supposes the existence of a background space-time equipped with quantum fields in their vacuum states, and this is clearly far from being nothing.

Krauss anticipates that "Purists will argue that this begs the question of how the physical laws that make it all possible arose," but the immediate problem is more that the quantum vacuum, and the pre-existing space-time required by the quantum vacuum, are very much something.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fugly F1 era begins at Barcelona

When I were a lad, the unveiling of a new F1 car would be an event of not mere technical interest, but an occasion of profound aesthetic appreciation. The days before the launch of a new car would be peppered with expectant thoughts, such as 'Will the new Williams be as beautiful as the FW07?'. The creation of a new F1 car was almost like the creation of a new, but extremely exclusive, mechanical species. On first sight, you knew that this was the shape and livery with which a pair of exotic technological phenotypes would contest that year's World Championship.

The last time, however, that I looked at a F1 car and thought that it was beautiful, was the early 1990s, and not only did the cars become less attractive to the eye, they also became increasingly undifferentiated as the regulations grew ever more constrictive. In 1998, the maximum width of the cars was reduced, grooved tyres became mandatory, and an F1 car became distinctly ill-proportioned.

For 2009, slick tyres are back, but the cars remain of post-1998 width, and now come equipped with a risible combination of wide front wings and narrow rear wings. This is surely the nadir of the F1 design aesthetic.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama and education levels

Courtesy of John C.Baez, these diagrams appear to demonstrate a strong correlation in the US between a tendency to vote Republican and a lack of education. The first diagram indicates which US states voted for Obama (blue), and which states voted for McCain (red).
The second diagram represents the proportion of people with less than 9 years of education.

One exception I spotted was New Mexico, which has quite poor education levels, but voted for Obama. This, however, can perhaps be explained by the fact that Obama cultivated a large portion of the hispanic vote.

Leonardo da Vinci and the Large Hadron Collider

The principle of specialisation seems to dominate modern society, both economically and academically. Whilst we look upon the 'universal men' of the Renaissance with admiration, there seems to be little desire to emulate them.

Peter Burke has identified 15 such universal men, each of whom possessed a competency in three or more areas beyond that of a dilettante: Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), architect, engineer, sculptor, painter; Antonio Filarete (1400-1465), architect, sculptor, writer; Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), architect, writer, medallist, painter; Lorenzo Vecchietta (1405/1412-1480), architect, painter, sculptor, engineer; Bernard Zenale (1436-1526), architect, painter, writer; Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1506), architect, engineer, sculptor, painter; Donato Bramante (1444-1514), architect, engineer, painter, poet; Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), architect, painter, sculptor, scientist; Giovanni Giocondo (1457-1525), architect, engineer, humanist; Silvestro Aquilano (<1471-1504), architect, sculptor, painter; Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), architect, painter, writer; Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), architect, sculptor, painter, writer; Guido Mazzoni (<1477-1518), sculptor, painter, theatrical producer; Piero Ligorio (1500-1583), architect, engineer, sculptor, painter; and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), architect, sculptor, painter, writer, (Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy).

Whilst there are no modern counterparts to these individuals, CERN engineer Sergio Cittolin has made a series of drawings of the Compact Muon Solenoid at the Large Hadron Collider, in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. He's even written his notes in mirror-image cursive text, just like Leonardo!


Monday, November 10, 2008

Ferrari boss smashed TV!

I've been scanning the papers over the last week or so to find a message of congratulation from FIA President Max Mosley to Lewis Hamilton, Ron Dennis, and the McLaren team, for their achievement in winning this year's F1 World Championship. I'm still looking.

Nevertheless, I'm sure Max will be effusive in his praise at the official FIA prize-giving ceremony in December. Bernie Ecclestone was certainly generous in his comments to Ron Dennis, reminding him that the engine from Hamilton's car has yet to be inspected:

"I told Ron, 'Only you know if there's anything wrong with the engine and, if there isn't, you have got nothing to worry about and, if there is, then you had better start worrying,'."

One can only speculate what Mosley's thoughts were as he watched Hamilton and McLaren winning the World Championship at the final corner of the final race, but perhaps they were similar to those of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, who has revealed that he smashed his television set in response:

"I broke the television, I must tell the truth," Reuters quoted di Montezemolo saying from a press conference at the Ferrari Finals in Mugello. "When a television breaks it makes a terrible bang.

"My daughter in the other room was given an awful fright. Luckily we had another television so I was able to watch the podium ceremony, which I enjoyed."

It's almost too good to be true.

A proof of the non-existence of God

Premise 1) Contradictions cannot exist.

Premise 2) God is a transcendent, supernatural, personal being, who created the natural universe.

Premise 3) God is an immanent, non-supernatural, non-personal being, equivalent to the natural universe.

Therefore God cannot exist.


Alan Hansen, obviously distressed at our form, said the club was in danger of becoming a 'relic'. I had to ask people what the word meant, but I could tell from the tone of his voice that it wasn't a compliment.

I'm currently reading Jamie Carragher's autobiography, and a decent read it is too. Particularly interesting are Carragher's analysis of the Houllier years:

Illness cruelly deprived him of the sharp judgement that had led to swift early progress, but for three years he was a great Liverpool manager...I owe much of my success to him.

Nevertheless, Carragher provides some insight into Houllier's sometimes baffling judgement. Carragher played as a centre-back during the 1998-99 season, and acquitted himself extremely well. However, after one poor performance against Man. Utd the next season, "any faith Houllier had in me as a centre-back was gone for good...I still find the haste with which Houllier changed his mind about my best position puzzling...I spent the next couple of years fighting for a place at left- and right-back...I had few complaints at first was a formality [Hyppia] and Stephane [Henchoz] would form a new partnership. But in later years when there were injuries or suspensions, I still wasn't considered a centre-back. Houllier would select Salif Diao, Igor Biscan or Djimi Traore ahead of me in the position, and just before he left the club he wanted to buy Jean-Alain Boumsong, and then Philippe Mexes from Auxerre, to play alongside Biscan. Phil Thompson would plead with Houllier to give me a chance back in the middle, but he was stubborn right until the last month of his reign, claiming I was a couple of inches too short for the role."

Elsewhere, Carragher recounts the general astonishment, and downright dejection, when the players learnt that Benitez had selected Kewell to play up front in the 2005 Champions League Final, pushing Gerrard back into central midfield, and dropping Hamann from the starting line-up: "'Harry is playing as a striker,' [said Gerrard], his voice almost quivering with disbelief."

But finally, I loved Carragher's recollection of the rendition given to You'll Never Walk Alone, as he walked out of the tunnel to begin the second-half of that famous game, 3-0 down:

It wasn't the usual version of our anthem though. There are different moments when The Kop summons Gerry Marsden's classic. Before every home game it's a deafening rallying cry, as if to inspire us to perform and frighten our opponents into submission. If we're winning in the closing stages of a huge match, it will be sung again, this time in celebration. But there are other occasions the words of the song have greater meaning, and at half-time in Istanbul the fans were singing it in sympathy more than belief. There was a slow, sad sound to it, almost as if it were being sung as a hymn.

And we all know what happened next...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lewis Hamilton and schizophrenia

'Lewis Hamilton'. Discuss.

It's sometimes difficult to know if Lewis Hamilton is the new Ayrton Senna or the new Nigel Mansell. By common consent, Lewis drove immaculately in 2007, his rookie F1 season, until the final couple of races, when he made a couple of errors and threw away the championship. At the time, those errors were ascribed to inexperience, the impetuosity of youth, and the understandable anxiety of fighting to close out a championship. Strangely, however, Lewis carried his late-season 2007 form into 2008, and spent the entire year alternating between brilliance and bathos.

December's Motorsport magazine contains a Nigel Roebuck interview with Lewis, and constitutes the first serious interview Lewis has conducted with a specialist journalist. The interview seems to reveal that there are very much two Lewis Hamiltons. One is calm and rational in the McLaren way, rising above provocation; the other is emotional and easily provoked.

Lewis spends a fair portion of the interview talking about two things: (i) the incident at Spa in 2007, when then-teamate Alonso forced him off the road; and (ii) drivers who generally get in the way or try to intimidate and provoke.

Consider Lewis's comments about the first incident: "If I had...wanted to hold my position, we'd have crashed[...]But I'm not like that - I'm big enough to be able to walk away[...]You have to be a big man in a situation like that. I could have been, you know...'I don't care, I'm going into this corner flat out, do or die', just to make a point, but it just wouldn't have been a very smart thing to do, would it? I don't think you're losing out if you do back off in that situation - I think being a bigger man has many more positives, quite honestly."

Which is all fine and good, and one can almost hear Ron Dennis's calm, ethical guidance echoing like Obi Wan Kenobi in Lewis's head. However, Lewis then adds this:

"In the incident here at Spa last year, I said to myself, 'I know what he's just done to me', and it did knock me in a sense. I mean, if I'd got close to him, I would have gone up the inside, and he would have been on the grass - I would have put him into a position where he would have tried to turn, and I would have let him know that I was there...but still fair. Otherwise, though, I wasn't retaliating."

So, not retaliating then, and still playing fair, but nevertheless putting your team-mate off the road if the opportunity arises. There seems to be an element of the Dark Side of the Force creeping in here, and one senses that Lewis is often trying to talk himself into believing things that, deep down, he doesn't believe.

Consider then Lewis's comments on the general conduct of other drivers:

"On the track I've always been polite, I've never really got in people's way - although there are a lot of drivers who do, and I look at that calmly[...]I don't do that, but there are some idiots here, who'll stay in front of you to hold you up, or they'll back off into you, and the way I see it, they only do that because they see you as a threat - so in a way it's a kind of compliment, I suppose[...]I can kind of see through them. I don't think there are many who deliberately use intimidation tactics - well, there is one, but I'm not going to say who it is, because I don't want to speak negatively about any other driver. We've all got flaws, in one way or another. Mind you, I think a lot of them continue to ignore their flaws."

Bear in mind here that these comments were made before Lewis's Spa penalty, and before all the other drivers in the paddock came out and criticised Lewis's overtaking manoeuvre at Spa. In the wake of that criticism, Lewis drove an extremely robust race at Monza, chopping Alonso, putting Glock on the grass, and banging wheels with Webber. One felt watching that race that Lewis was racing with a very strong sense of injustice, and that it was pay-back time for those three drivers in particular. One can only speculate on which driver Lewis considers to be deliberately intimidative, but my money would be on Mr Webber, who appears to specialise in high-speed intimidation (see Webber vs. Massa, Fuji 2008 and Webber vs. Alonso, Suzuka 2005), and also had the temerity to deem Lewis a dangerous driver after Fuji this year.

A number of Lewis's errors this year seem to have been borne of emotion: he ran into Alonso in Bahrain because he was rattled at fluffing his start; he ran in Raikkonen in the pit-lane at Canada because he was rattled at losing the lead in the pit-stop; he made a mis-judgement in France because he was rattled at the injustice of receiving a penalty for the pit-lane incident; he mis-judged qualifying at Monza because he was rattled at the injustice of the Spa penalty; and he overshot at the first corner at Fuji because he was rattled at losing the lead to Raikkonen.

Lewis Hamilton is a proper racer. He loves overtaking, and loves sliding the rear end of the car through a corner. Nevertheless, there is fundamentally a tension in Lewis's driving persona between his rational side and his emotional side. The emotional side is opened up if he becomes the victim of injustice, either at the hands of the FIA, or at the hands of other drivers, and this emotional side skews Lewis's better judgement. In a sense, this is completely understandable, and one suspects that most of us would react in a similar fashion. However, as Nigel Roebuck remarks elsewhere in the same issue of Motorsport, "until [Hamilton] is more selective in when to go for it and when not, he will never be as good as he thinks he is".

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Quantization of Solace

Imagine, if you will, my disappointment: there I was, thinking that Quantum of Solace would be a thoughtful cinematic tract upon a new approach to psychology, and it turned out to be just another Bond film!

If classical, Newtonian psychology posits definite emotional states to people, then quantum psychology presumably accepts superpositions of different emotional states: people can be both happy and sad at the same time, according to quantum psychology. And whilst classical psychology assumes that the degree of an emotion lies on a continuum, quantum psychology suggests that emotions come in discrete lumps, such as a quantum of melancholy. Or a quantum of solace.

My initial confusion was only intensified when the film also appeared to suffer from a huge (quantized) degree of what can only be described as 'Bourne envy'. The first action sequence was a car chase filmed in exactly the style of a car chase from the Jason Bourne franchise, and the second action sequence, which was separated from the first by only the merest scintilla of plot, was a chase across the rooftops of a charming Southern European cityscape, filmed in the style of just such an escapade from the Bourne trilogy.

Truthfully, though, the film isn't as bad as many critics are suggesting. Bond goes around callously killing people because, (so I'm told), his girl died in Casino Royale, and there's no real plot to speak of, but it's all pretty exciting stuff.

My favourite bit, though, was a close-up of Judi Dench applying moisturiser. I've never seen moisturiser applied in a film before.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


The history of F1 is an epic narrative of heroism and technical ingenuity, interwoven with tragedy, politics and greed. Emasculated by the nanny-state culture and top-down regulation of the modern world, the spectre of death no longer hangs over the sport, but it has developed into the most competitive technological arms-race on the planet. In fact, F1 is the most sophisticated, multi-dimensional cultural activity on the surface of the Earth; no other activity features the intense combination of sport, technology, politics, and business which defines F1. Teams with annual budgets of $500,000,000, employ wind-tunnels which operate 24/7, and supercomputers which perform 10,000,000,000,000 floating-point operations per second, to equip their drivers with the means to maximally extend their biological bipedal locomotive capabilities. Years of practice honing kinaesthetic sensitivities, sensory feedback loops, reaction speeds, spatial pattern recognition, racecraft, and mind management skills, will culminate tomorrow when Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa compete to achieve their respective lifetime ambitions.

It's just as well that the stewards of the Belgian Grand Prix stripped Lewis Hamilton of victory in that race, otherwise we wouldn't now be on the verge of another revenue-generating, mass television-audience finale to the F1 World Championship.

Would we Bernie?