In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Odd Trio Redux.”
Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.
We’ve got a floor plan. In a reductionist world two features of space and time stand together in the battle-scarred macroscopic twentieth-century theories of Einstein. He explains how the cosmos came into being and hangs together. Contrast this with the mirrored microcosm of Bohr’s theory of how elementary particles work, the flickers of the creeping subjectivity of the observer effect and creating seemingly something from nothing. We have something that undermines the mechanical movements and objectivity of classical physics, but does not undermine the beauty and grace of Einstein’s equations. It complicates what is complicated – the architecture of the cosmos. Theories, like the individuals that produced them, don’t stand still. They say prove me wrong. The sky doesn’t fall down, but we can move onto the next theory that explains why it is still above, or indeed, below us.
Rovelli in his third lesson traces the scientific visions that have gone before and the revolution in thinking that has increased our understanding of how we ‘see’ reality.
In his first box, a figure of a little man (or woman) stands like an X with the earth below him and the sky above. For millennia, thousands of years, for any man that could see, this was unquestioned reality.
Borelli tells us that Anaximander twenty-six centuries ago questioned this reality. He asked how it was possible for the sun, moon and stars to revolve around us. His answer was that the sky was not just above us, but also below us. Thus in the second box the sky takes up the four corners and the little X-man is standing on a block of earth and has his arms raised to the sky, and his counterpart, another upside-down X-man, has his arms raised to the sky.
There is uncertainty in Borelli’s attribution of who first though of the earth as a great floating stone suspended in space, whether that honour goes to Parmenides, or Pythagoras (perhaps both and it took different cultural paths into our understanding?). Here the resultant diagram is no longer a box, but the more recognisable Ptolemaic system of circles within circles of unnamed stars and moon with the earth a shaded bullseye, and a little X-man standing on it, at the centre of the known universe.
The Copernicus revolution was the end of the Ptolemaic worldview. The earth was no longer the centre of the universe, but just one, among other planets, bigger and smaller than ours, in a diagram of a rock, with an X-man on it, circling the sun.
Here I’m going to step outside Borelli’s high-speed chase through time and interject Galileo Galilei. The Renaissance astronomer and polymath famously was forced by the Catholic Church to recant his proofs that Copernicus was correct and to swear that the Ptolemaic worldview was the only model that worked in allowing God to put X-man at the centre of the universe and give God parental visiting rights. The mind of a visionary and the heart of a visionary may be pulling in different directions.
A contemporary comparison would be global warming. Scientist at the end of the 1960s charted the greenhouse gas effect of fossil fuel use in parts per million. The Third World War has begun with the loss of human life far more likely to be greater than the First and Second, and indeed all previous wars, combined all within two generations. A child born now will see the start, but not the end of it. But in terms of the solar system that’s not even a blink of light.
With improved instruments our measurement of the solar system has improved exponentially. The Hubble telescope which orbits the planet and allows us to see deep into space, studded with splashes of galaxies moving endlessly in time since an estimated fifteen billion years ago; the earth a small ball exploded into being with the other planets that surround it, lies not at the beginning or the end, but part of time and space.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Trick Questions.”
Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.
If Isaac Newton is the father of physics, Albert Einstein is the mother, but he didn’t love all his children equally. Remember before Einstein, physics was spread out like a dirty nappy between subjects as diverse as Mathematics, Philosophy and the industry leader, Chemistry, in universities and colleges. A fresh-faced Richard Feynman after leaving the Manhattan Project, for example, found himself teaching at Cal Tech. He was the Physics’ department. The atom bomb changed everything, but before the atom bomb, quantum theory (or quantum mechanics) changed everything we know, or think we know, about atoms. Einstein’s theory of gravity, space and time wrapped reality up in a big red bow. Quantum mechanics picked it apart and introduced uncertainty into equations. No one was quite sure how it worked, but quantum mechanics did work. Nowadays, for example, quantum computers exist. Birds navigate from continent to continent by ‘seeing’ the curve of space/time. Einstein before he died was trying to reconcile the known and the unknown. His theory of everything was championing the god of objectivity in science. And Niels Bohr, whose ongoing dialogue with Einstein enriched science, suggested at a subatomic level the devil of subjectivity played a part. Before he died Bohr had a photograph taken, in the background, a blackboard in his study. The drawing on it is a ‘light filled box’ something Einstein conceived as a thought experiment.
‘Imagine a box filled with light, from which we allow a single photon to escape for an instant…’
Photon from phos/phot ‘light’, but light is both singular and pleural. One cannot be separated from the other.
But that is exactly what Max Planck did. He imagined a hot box. In it an electric field in equilibrium. His genius was suggesting that the energy of this field could be broken down into quanta, packets or lumps of energy. Light, which travelled at a uniform speed through space, in relation to the energy expended in creation, was somehow at a subatomic level, lumpy. It made no sense, but made perfect sense. Einstein confirmed Planck’s hypothesis was correct.
Bohr’s genius was the nowadays clichéd quantum leap of gaining the philosopher’s stone, without quite knowing how it worked. He described how electrons gain and lose the energy of light (that quantum leap) from one oscillating orbit to another and how Mendeleev’s periodic table of how everything remains the same, but is different, could be best understood.
A fellow German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, put a new spin on it by suggesting, at a subatomic level, electrons do not always exist. Objective reality therefore does not exist. An apple, for example, either exist, or it does not. But Heisenberg suggested we did not to follow that strict dichotomy. We could calculate the probability of an electron existing, but only when colliding with something else and making a quantum leap. Before and after, is not measureable, and in the same way, when I’m offline I no longer exist and have no place in the world.
Rovelli puts it very succinctly: ‘It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored, but just dotted with a faint outline.’
Possibility and probability replace all the old certainties. But like alchemists of old not only were electrons called into being when observed jumping from one random state to another, but the subjective element of looking or measuring could not be teased from cause and effect. I, for example, only exist online when you look at me. I don’t exist otherwise. Or I may exist, but you can’t prove it. And if you try and look at me offline you can no longer see me online. The real and unreal become wrapped around one another. And in observing you become part of the ongoing equation. Look away now. Next up, in the third lesson, ‘The Architecture of the Cosmos’.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Finite Creatures.”
It’s front page news in the Observer, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II giving a Nazi salute. Pages of piffle devoted to it. What is Her Royal Highness hiding in the royal wardrobe, an SS guard’s uniform? I’d say give her a little slack. She was a kid. Kids do stupid things.
I’ve done it myself. Well not that exactly. But on Friday night I watched a programme on Channel 5, channelled my inner Nazi. That’s right the propaganda channel with shows with modern Goebbels-like titles such as: 78-stone-fat guy and how he’s ripping the country off big-time by being too fat, not working, destroying NHS beds and expecting us workers to pick up the pieces. The NHS estimate 70 000 premature deaths a year are due to obesity, but in Channel 5’s Humpty-Dumpty reportage they’re not dying quickly enough.
It’s all about class. People that sniff nail polish watch Channel 5. I’m a BBC class of guy. When they showed a documentary about Napoleon on BBC 2, for example, I was gutted when he lost at Waterloo. Knew it was going to happen. History is history, but still gutted. I like the small guy to win. Napoleon supported a meritocracy. He didn’t mind giving the wee guy with big balls a chance. Whisper it, you could even be Jewish. The British aristocracy supported the status-quo. I support anybody but the British aristocracy. Look at pictures of David Cameron and Company and you’ll understand why. Nothing’s changed since then. We’re back to bowing and scraping and the best job children can now expect is to serve the super-rich their well-fired peasant.
But I couldn’t resist having a look at Conspiracy: The Alien Files. I used to love all that kind of stuff when I was a kid. They had Raj Persuad, a psychiatrist, persuading us that we might not be alone in the universe. Raj should look between the lines, he is I believe a convicted plagiarist, guilty of being a little god and creating other’s work in his own image. Sigmund Freud thought we were along in the universe. Raj perhaps didn’t want to appear controversial and have a mind of his own. Looking back to my own childhood experiences Uri Geller was, of course, uber controversial. And when he told us in his autobiography he was abducted by aliens I believed him. That’s where and when he picked up his strange powers to bend spoons. I could never do that. It always pissed me off. I used to sit alone in a deckchair on the surface of Neptune trying to bend a spoon whilst the wind whistled past me at 1500 miles-per-hour. If there was life on other planets I’d have known about it. The ten years it took a probe to get there and my thoughts were what a crap camera phone. It looks like a Noika. If that’s the best Earth can do I’m shopping elsewhere. On the balance of probability the Channel 5 programme concluded that 99% of reported sighting of aliens was highly unlikely. And less than 1% of the richest people in the world couldn’t control the economies and political apparatus of the rest of man—or alien—kind, or could they? Put some of the X-files music theme music on and think about it.
My guess is we’ll get more programmes about Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II on Channel 5. She’s in a monopoly position of power and not been properly market tested. Under the rules of perfect competition other quasi royals would rush in and offer to do the queen’s jobs cheaper. Her Royal Highness would be on the same wages as Santa, zero-hour contract, not paid for standing around looking bored. Make her way to her own gigs. Unpaid overtime part of the go-to-work corporate culture.
Her Royal Highness could play that to her advantage. She could copyright her image, employ Black Rod on the black market to open Parliament for her, get payment for her image being used on stamps, her name being on public building and like Hitler’s Mein Kampf she could write a best-seller based on her own prejudices. Prince Philip could supply a few hearty quips such as asking workers in crisis centres they are patronising who they’re sponging off. Har, Har. Aliens. They’re definitely out there and part of the 1%.
Kurt Vonnegut turns up in the most unlikely of places. I’m not familiar with his writing, but I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis Liar’s Poker in which the author quotes Vonnegut below to describe how the bond market works to distort reality, and to make it seem normal, a theme the everyman Billy Pilgrim’s character stumbles into in his Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
There is a magic moment, during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who has to receive it has not done so. An alert lawyer [read bond trader] will make that moment his own, possessing that treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it and passing it on.
This bring to mind the way coinage used to be debased when it was precious metals made out of a substance equal to value of the currency, for example, either gold or silver, and it was an offence against the king or ruler to shave a coin. Now New York and London Stock exchanges are one of the greatest industries, in monetary terms, devised by man, and when it fails thousands of billions of pounds of public money needs to be spent to keep the foul-smelling water of commerce drinkable for the rest of us.
In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in a shop that sells porn, but he’s more interested in a badly written sci-fi book used as a front to make it seem like a respectable book store. The book is written by an author he knows and admires Kilgore Trout. The narrative in Kilgore’s book matches Pilgrim’s own experience of being abducted by the Tranfalmadorians and is about a man and woman kidnapped by extra-terrestrials and taken to another planet, Zircon-212, and put on display in a zoo. He has another of his epiphanies that underpin the wisdom of the book.
These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along the wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth and it was up to them to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.
The telephone and the big board were all fakes of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo…
The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course…The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.
It worked. Olive oil went up.
Billy Pilgrim’s ability to transcend time and travel backwards and forwards showed him the fickle fiction of such fortunes. He followed the traditional path to wealth by marrying the obese boss’s daughter nobody else wants to marry, including Billy.
But there is a prophetic touch in the car stickers Billy Pilgrim passes sporting the message Reagan for President. Vonnegut’s novel was published in 1969. He had no way of knowing that the friend of Bonzo—and I don’t mean George W—would actually become President. Not even Vonnegut could have imagined that.
To take a further jump in time and imagine a woman President in Hillary Clinton –perhaps? Vonnegut imagined a world in which the fire-bombing of Dresden with conventional weapons with a power more lethal than the atomic age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime and unjustifiable. Hillary Clinton’s big message and big sell to the American people that the American future depend on equality of opportunity and is certainly far more left wing than the big two political parties in Britain offer:
To ensure a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Rio Grande valley grows up with the same shot of success as Charlotte [Clinton] will.
Vonnegut’s character, Howard W Campbell, an American playwright that aligned himself with the Nazi Party strips the hubris of such messages to the bone. Campbell writes a monograph that Billy Pilgrim gets to read. The reader looking over his character’s shoulder gets to read it too and assess its validity.
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor and urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humourist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone one with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters…asking this cruel question, ‘if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?’
Their most destructive untruth is it is very easy to make money. They will in fact not acknowledge how hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those without money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have to do less for the poor publicly and privately.
I’m beginning to believe that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were time-travellers and they’ve jumped in their spaceship and landed here in April 2015. If Vonnegut can pluck Billy Pilgrim from the ether, the Tranfalmadorians and their zoo, then perhaps we can pluck Vonnegut from death and elect him President of the United States, or even Britain. I’d vote for him.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “A House Divided.”
Angela Samarta’s husband Mark committed suicide. Childhood sweethearts, fifth and sixth formers at the same school, she had a child at eighteen and another boy ten years later at twenty-eight. They had a temporary separation which became permanent. She wonders if she ever knew Mark. Here she comes to terms with it.
Suicide is the most common cause of death of men below fifty. We look for commonalities among those that have committed suicide by asking those who have attempted suicide. Samarta visits the University of Glasgow. The grounds are very nice. It’s a spring day. She comments on the Gothic architecture, which is suitably magnificent. Professor O’Connor tells her he has a close friend that committed suicide and he somehow felt responsible. I’ll paraphrase. A narrowing of world view is common. A general feeling that the world would not miss them, that in many ways it would be better off without them. A world of silence. The whys of life, becomes a loop of how can I end it?
Suicide is a personal failing that we fail to understand. Certainly for the Ebdon family, a mother commits suicide and leaves five young girls under ten it can seem an extremely selfish act. The aptly named Jackie Payne lost a husband to suicide and twenty years later her son also killed himself.
The camera visits North London. Maytree is a place where people that are thinking of killing themselves can go—to find time out. Run by two former Samaritans, one who admitted to have tried to kill herself, she seemed sincere, honest, and all the good things you’d like to imagine would be there for you.
Let’s take a step away from the camera. Maytree is one house, hardly a public resource. It’s in London. Probable cost two million for the property. Add on wages, (low estimate) twenty thousand per counsellor. Sticking plaster. Not even that.
Programmes like this are personal dramas of love and redemption for the photogenic. I’ve nothing but admiration for those taking part. But closer to home I’d be looking not at the individuals and the handwringing deficiency theory of if only I’d have known I’d have done something. Quite simply the resources aren’t there. There are no places of safety. Nowhere to go.
Suicide is often a rational choice. Durkheim, at the end of the nineteen century, located it in the breakdown of social and religious ties and in a collective anomie. I’d put is another way. When rampant individualism becomes the orthodoxy more people commit suicide because they are increasingly devalued, seen as worthless and regard themselves as worthless. Look at the suicide statistics for those that have failed the ‘Atos test’. Suicide is often a collective failure. Closer to home the question needs to be asked, what circumstances would drive you to suicide?
Would I commit suicide? Yes. Am I suicidal? No.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Roaring Laughter.”
Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.
David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, cousin to Patrick and uncle to Henry writes a blur on the cover: ‘A truly remarkable book, and a brave one’.
That’s clichéd. Clichés are quite common in mental illness. If you shot everyone that mouthed a cliché you’d have quite a few bodies lying at your feet. My favourite is the story of the thirds. A third recover from mental illness with no lasting effect. A third with the help of medication lead a normal life. Bang. There goes another body. And a third go and live in limbo land.
I’ve heard the same story applied to alcoholics and drug addicts.
Their stories are always remarkable, if not always true. Bang. Bang.
They are always brave. Bang.
By Henry Cockburn’s own estimation 1% of the world’s population suffer from schizophrenia. He suggests a particular uniformity in this. But then revises this estimation to suggest it is uneven. Immigrants for example are seven times more likely to suffer from it. And schizophrenia clusters around city centres like drunks waiting for the last bus home. It is no respecter or class or gender, but does fit a particular pattern and strikes after late adolescence. What makes Henry’s demons unique is his father is a journalist that writes for The Independent, his mother Jan is an academic that teaches English graduates and so they encourage Henry to forge and new identity not as a sick person, but as a writer. He too is artistic, went to public school, his brother Alex a skilled mathematician won a scholarship to King’s College Canterbury, the same school Henry attended, but with less distinction. Writing it out helps mental illness. Bang.
Henry writes about a ten percent of this book. Patrick about eighty-five percent and his wife Jan about five percent. Henry’s passages are the leaven which make the book. He describes institutional life as cigarettes and time. ‘Life passes so slowly you start thinking numbers…’ But trees, in particular, talk to him. Welcome him. A robin tells him what to do. And after reading Lord of the Rings he believes he’s turning into Gollum. There are terrors. But the sense of ecstasy and oneness with nature is so wildly exciting that being naked in sub-zero temperatures, suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, almost losing his feet, starving and almost dying seem incidental. Over seven years he absconds from hospitals that incarcerated him over thirty times. The police put pressure on hospitals to keep him properly incarcerated because, of course, they have better things to do with their time than look for vulnerable young men. Bang. They could, for example, be putting up road blocks and asking motorists ‘where are you going sir? What exactly is the purpose of your journey?’ Even at the end of the book Henry admits he was not really sure he was ill. Is ill.
Get some alcoholics talking about their former drunks and you’ll get some good stories. Heroin addicts rhapsodise about that time when everything was sweet. Nothing compares to the ecstasy of Joan of Arc, for example, hearing voices. And Patrick is good at teasing out another of his relatives Evelyn Waugh’s real-life ascent, not descent, into madness in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. But Henry’s reading from the script of recovery. Bang.
What the book is best at is describing how the bomb of madness blows away any idea of normal family life. A shell is left to construct a new shelter. One of the first barriers they encounter is Henry is an adult and doesn’t believe he is ill. They are a highly educated, upper middle class, couple, but as anyone familiar with the mental health system knows the omerta rule that applies to the Mafia also applies to mental health, indeed any National health institutions. The Data Protection Act 1998 is the perfect stick to beat away any enquiries. There are a few writers on ABCtales (whom I shall not name) that could tell you interesting tales how this instrument of torture is used and calibrated.
Patrick, Jan and Alex find what many other of us have found, the mental health system when you pull back the curtain is like the Wizard of Oz an old man pedalling a bike and shouting through a loudhailer. The cost is its own horror story. Patrick estimates it is cheaper sending your child to the most expensive public school in England, Eton. And let’s face it at Eton he might not get the job of Jesus when he grows up but will have a very good chance of becoming a politician, becoming prime minister and selling all those nice bits of lands used by hospitals to property developers who really need the land. Care in the Community has a nice ring to it. The reality is prison, which costs even more, as the American model shows.
Asylum, Patrick suggests, is an ugly word. His family in their bones know how necessary it is. Lesson learned. One in three people will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life. I love that kind of dramatic certainty from tabloid headlines. Don’t get sick. Don’t get ill. That’s madness. If you do you enter an underworld in which there is no key. Jan finds it a world of snakes and ladders (with not many ladders). Be warned. Stay well. Stay sane. Or at least become wealthy. More bangs for your buck.