Latest May 5th 2008

This morning Andrew Marr excelled himself. His 'Start the Week' program on Radio 4 is always worth listening to, but today he discussed with their authors 4 books of which three are essential reading and the fourth highly recommended. I quote the summary from the BBC web site:

Have you ever wondered why the universe is just right for life? That's the question being asked by the eminent physicist and cosmologist PAUL DAVIES. He explains why, if almost any of the basic features of the universe were different, life would be impossible. But was it a fluke, an act of God, or is our universe just one of a few that permits life? The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? is published by Allen Lane.

The historian ANDREW ROBERTS has set himself the bold task of carrying on the story of the English-speaking peoples, begun by Winston Churchill. Roberts' account starts where Churchill's ends, 1900, and so he chronicles the development of the English-speaking peoples through the 20th Century. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

French philosopher BERNARD-HENRI LEVY has undertaken a journey round America in the footsteps of the French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville. The result is his book American Vertigo which gives some indication of the America he found - under threat, intimated and lacking cohesion. American Vertigo: On the Road from Newport to Guantanamo is published by Gibson Square Books.

It was only when he was 72 and had lost his estranged wife that Thomas Hardy became a great poet. Biographer CLAIRE TOMALIN talks about Hardy's late, great flowering and how he travelled from his poor roots in rural Dorset to his last resting place in Westminster Abbey. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man is published by Viking.

I have not yet read any of the above, but I shall now have to read at least the first three because its sounds to me that in addition to well researched information they contain a great deal of wisdom. I have read some of Paul Davies' previous work and, while I appreciated it, I was also frustrated. While he approached some great insights he never 'dropped the other shoe'. One was really no nearer getting a decision on the solution of the puzzles and paradoxes of physics, cosmology and philosophy that plague our current generation. I saw these as resolvable, understandable, leading us on to more important problems, decisions, actions, aims and debates. The paradoxes and insoluble puzzles were the result of false assumptions and limited viewpoints in multidimensional space-time. From what I heard this morning between extraneous domestic tasks that distracted my attention it seems he has made progress in explaining what he was getting round to working out over the years, and with which I concur. I will read it and let you know.  SEE ENTRY FEB 12th 2008 below.

Andrew Roberts seems to have got a grip on reality in history. There are those who claim there is no objective history, that it is written by victors anyway etc.etc. Modern communications combined with a multitude of existing local records and memories open greater possibilities. Events can be viewed from many perspectives. The causes behind effects, their controllablity or the reverse by the participants can be better assessed. Intentions can be analysed with hindsight and also with contemporary foresight. Sources can be cross-referenced.

Bernard-Henri Levy writes from a position of massive experience and knowledge of Europe and America. Talking about this book he says 'I am not a 'pro-American', I am 'anti anti-American'. He explains himself very well indeed. I think he also shares my former belief from the 1980s, still a hope, that 'there is nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America'.

Claire Tomalin writes about Thomas Hardy, who became a great poet at the age of 72. Here again we are witnessing how it takes a mulltiplicity of viewpoints, this time achieved through the changing circumstances over a lifetime, that gives the insight that transcends.

Pilate said: "What is truth?". We are still caught up in debates about subjective and objective reality. Yet many people have reached an understanding of how the two relate. More difficult is how to impart this understanding to successive generations in an ever changing world.  A great physicist once said of science and religion that "they are two different windows on the same world, equally valid, but we can only look through one at a time". That may be the case, but if we take the trouble over the years to look through each with great care, alternately, many times, we can use our third, inner, eye to see both at once. The result is a new level of understanding and appreciation, as different as an 'Omnimax' experience to a postcard, beyond conventional vizualisation.

To communicate understanding takes time. As St John once remarked, it will take all the books that have ever been written. But we can construct analogies which can give insight. Not only do we look through one window at a time, the object, event or idea we are viewing is sometimes illuminated by a single source. The result in that case is that some of it is visible, some is in total darkness, and then there may be 'grey areas'. If we change the source of illumination, what was a grey area may be illuminated and what was clear become grey. From other points of view our brightly lit aspect may be invisible to those who see. through their window, what for us does not exist. To get an objective understanding of reality, we have either to look through every window and ask for illumination from all the sources we can find, or develop through experience the ability to rotate, in our own intellect, the object, event or idea in question. Few of us in today's world, where there is 'no time to stand and stare', where from cradle to grave we are trying to deal with the demands of the moment, have the opportunity to do any of this. We are therefore ever more reliant on Public Service Broadcasting to bring enlightement into our lives and present us with their selection from the mass of input and output..

We are now offered hundreds of TV and Radio channels and the World Wide Web, but I expect cutting-edge broadcasters and journalists to find out what we need to have a look at and bring it to our attention. A few newspapers do this.The main 5 TV channels do too. I hope they continue to do so as even if you were to buy a set-op box and a DVD recorder you would never have time to look at the output before deciding that it was or was not worth watching anyway.

FEBRUARY 12th 2008 - see entry above on Paul Davies

I have.not yet read Paul Davies' "The Goldilocks Enigma" but Robin Lustig has and came to the same conclusion that I did about Davies previous books. However I am just as disappointed with Lustig as he is with Davies. I accept that Davies has not come up with the solution, but this is what I have written in the file on Quantum Physics on this web site:

I [have been listening to] the reviews, on BBC Radio 4 "A Good Read", of Paul Davies "The Goldilocks Enigma".

I have not read it. I assume its contents hold no surprises.but some excellent descriptions of alternative theories and interpretations of the origin, nature and possible purpose of the observable universe and its activity.

What gave me pause was the reaction of one of the reviewers, Robin Lustig, a highly articulate and imaginative BBC presenter (you can look up his CV no doubt via Google). Lustig was disappointed and angry at finding the book difficult to understand and, at the end, offering no 'answer'. Fair enough, but he then produced an example of the text that really annoyed him, read it out and said: "What am I supposed to make of that?".

The paragraph in question was in fact a important suggestion that there was scientific evidence to show that the 'mass' of the universe was not a static quantity or property but a dynamic manifestation. When everything is taken into account mathematically the mass of the universe is in fact ZERO. It is the sort of observation that can assist those trying to work out the solution to "The Goldilocks Enigma" a puzzle concerning the reason for our world being so extraordinarily, exactly suitable for the development and continuing sustenance of human life and the surrounding universe so benign in its distant arrangement, yet how can this be if there is no divine design or designer.

We are inclined to think of the universe having some static property like a violin string at rest, and all that we observe to be like notes that emanate from its vibration,.the origin of the string itself being on a different level. Physicists talk of 'the building blocks of the universe' and 'mass' (inertial, gravitational and otherly defined) as a 'property or properties of matter'. I think this is not so reasonable. Even at this level it could be an activity and not a property.

So while I accept that Paul Davies may not have pointed readers towards a closer understanding (I will now have to read the damned thing) I am really disappointed by Lustig - to such an extent that I decided to stop writing any more here for the moment. I am not sure there are any readers worth the effort - though the other members of the Good Read team made a bit more of an effort.

There is a solution to the Goldilocks Enigma. Various people have got quite close to cracking it, but then have always gone for a single way out which ends up in an infinity of of one sort or another in terms that they prefer (like an infinite number of universes of which we are one, or an effective infinity of possibilities within the one we can observe which (as Derren Brown has shown by tossing a coin) would end up in something like what we know anyway. That's the 'monkeys can write Shakespeare' theory. Then we have the famous Weak Anthropic Principle to take into account. They are all important theories and all wrong or incomplete, lacking some philosophical or mathematical dimensions. Monkey's DID write Shakespeare anyway, or rather one of their cousins many times removed did, but not by chance at that stage of the game.

There is an answer to the Goldilocks Enigma. It is excellent. But on reflection it is a good thing most people do not get a glimpse of it as they would probably stop what they are doing, go out and get pleasantly pissed with their friends. Hold on..... I keep reading that's what too many people are doing anyway, though not so pleasantly, because they CAN'T understand why or how they are here in the first place. Talk about Catch 22!

Paradox abounds as we approach the boundaries of any 'box' of existence we explore. While it is ever more clear that there are probably many planets with life in our galaxy and some with intelligent life, it is also becoming clearer that we will never make contact with them and in this century may or may not receive direct evidence by observation of the electromagnetic spectrum. As a longtime supporter of the theory of extra terrestrial intelligence and at the same time a supporter of my own theory that conventional contact or proof at our level of science and society would be inconsistent with any cosmological philosophy or model that is rational, I value and approve that apparent paradox.

APRIL 21st 2008
Once again Andrew Marr has come up with a remarkable bunch of academics with remarkable powers of verbal expression. The research they have done and the thoughts they have to express are profound.

Raymond Tallis states out loud the thoughts millions will have had about their own consciousness and self-consciousness. He has not gone as far into this as he might but has gone a long way with great clarity. A little further and he might have thought he was back at the beginning so his limitations are probably in the reader's favour.

Daniel Dennet targets unerringly the failures of both organised religion and the idiosynchrasies of disorganised superstition. He is an atheist as a result because he has failed to understand the real religious insights that are not only compatible with reason but actually assist, when we meet a barrier in the form of a a paradox, to take us on and through to the next level, with rationality intact and science undamaged. Both Christ and Buddha would have no problem with Dennet even though he thinks he has a problem with them. His problem is actually with Christians and Buddhists he has observed and listened to or read the thoughts of, some of which he may have understood and rightly rejected, others which he may have misunderstood.

Gwen Griffith-Dickson has profound insight into the confusion that surrounds young Muslims who are drawn to violence, lacking any proper understanding of their own religion and misled by their environment and sometimes the media as to the culture and motives of the UK establishment and its aims and objectives. You need to read the book to get the picture.

Carole Seymour-Jones brings to book the complete Sartre and de Beauvoir, revealing them to be self-obsessed pioneers who got everything wrong, the ultimate trial-and-error story from which they learned a little and at best enabled te rest of us to avoid mistakes we were not going to make anyway, being less arrogant and/or less driven by their own psychological problems. She does not intend this as a hatchet job though so it is for the reader to come to the conclusion I have just reached. It was perhaps not always what Sartre and de Beauvoir did which was a mistake but the way that they did it, and why.

Here is the BBC website summary

This week Andrew Marr is joined by Raymond Tallis, Daniel Dennett, Gwen Griffith-Dickson and Carole Seymour-Jones.
For over thirty years RAYMOND TALLIS has been leading a double life. An eminent physician and professor of geriatric medicine, he has been waking at dawn every morning to write poetry, novels and philosophical ponderings on the nature of human consciousness. His latest book is an exploration of our nearest and dearest object: our head, which Tallis argues consists of so much more than our brain. The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head is published by Atlantic Books.

A man who has had to “forgive” his friends for praying for him during a life-threatening heart illness, philosopher DANIEL DENNETT is one of the world’s best known atheists. He argues that religion is the greatest threat to rationality and progress that we face today and that it is stopping us becoming “the best we could be”. Daniel Dennett will be speaking for the motion Religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality that we face today at the British Council on 22 April. The event is part of rethink, a season of events run by Agora (the Forum for Culture and Education) and The Guardian.

In the last week the Home Secretary has pledged an extra 300 police to help prevent terrorism by targeting radicalisation in communities. But PROFESSOR GWEN GRIFFITH-DICKSON argues that it’s not simply a policing issue. To tackle extremism, we must consider the non-religious factors in radicalisation, rethink the term ‘moderate Muslim’ and engage the right leaders in tackling emotionally manipulative recruitment techniques. Gwen is the director of the Lokahi Foundation and will be delivering a lecture titled Countering Extremism and the Politics of 'Engagement' at Gresham College on 29 April.

The model couple of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, attempted to stand ‘man alone, without excuses’ in a world without God. But as CAROLE SEYMOUR-JONES argues, the reality was much more complicated. Their iconic ‘open’ relationship involved de Beauvoir sacrificing the girls she seduced to keep Sartre’s love, while Sartre compromised first with the Nazis and later with the Communist regime after falling into a Soviet honey-trap. A Dangerous Liaison is published by Century.

MAY 5th 2008
Andrew Marr again has his finger on the literary pulse. Nicholson Baker's knickers are totally rwisted and his thesis 100% wrong in detail and as a whole, though it seems he has come up with some interesting facts. Knowing where to put them and value them in the scheme of things might have helped. On the other hand Jeffrey Sachs lays it on the line and if we don't realise we have to make the choices he lays before us then Nature will carry on without our guidance or cooperation. Nice to be part of the solution for a change but maybe that's not the way it works....
Chopin's Majorca Holiday was the source of his amazing Preludes, that's worth a read; but most surprising is that for all that has been written about Wren, Hooke and Locke it has not been clear to most of us how the synergy of great multidisciplinarians at that era virtually rebooted London and to a great extent Britain's future by their example.and achievements.

NICHOLSON BAKER is best known for his novels celebrating the minutiae of everyday life. However, his new book examines one of the most significant events of the last century: the Second World War. Nicholson Baker defends his controversial argument that the actions of the Allied forces fanned the flames of conflict with Germany and that a truce with Hitler may have saved lives. Human Smoke is published by Simon & Schuster.

As an advisor to the UN Secretary-General, the economist JEFFREY SACHS has been instrumental in drawing up internationally agreed goals to reduce poverty, hunger and disease across the world. His latest book is a characteristically ambitious plan for nothing less than saving the planet and calls for radical action on climate change, sustainable development and population growth through a new kind of global co-operation. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet is published by Allen Lane.

In October 1838, the composer Frédéric Chopin, together with his lover, the bohemian French novelist George Sand and her children, embarked for Majorca for a turbulent four-month stay that has since taken on a mythic life of its own. As part of BBC Radio 3’s upcoming weekend devoted to playing every note written by the composer, pianist and broadcaster SARAH WALKER has travelled to the island to find out what really happened. The Chopin Experience on BBC Radio 3 is on 17 and 18 May.

As St Paul’s Cathedral celebrates its 300th birthday this year, writer LEO HOLLIS talks about the life of the building, reconstructed in the aftermath of the great Fire of London. He uncovers the history of the Cathedral by examining the lives of the men whose ideas and inventions helped to build it. The Phoenix: St Paul’s Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.