Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

More Warmongering by the Beeb and the Tories over Salisbury Poisoning

March 22, 2018

Quite a few people have put up pieces tearing great, raw chunks out of the government’s story that the Russians are responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Salisbury. Last week, Leftwingnobody, one of the great commenters on this blog, posted up a link on his blog to a piece in the Irish Times, which stated that it was unlikely the Russians were responsible. Leftwingnobody’s link is at Go to it, and follow the link for more information.
Craig Murray, who was formerly our man in Uzbekistan, before being kicked out because he had moral objections to our dealing with a corrupt, repressive tyrant, has also cast doubt on the government’s story. And Mike has also posted up continuing developments, which add more questions. Today he put up a piece quoting the Russians, who said that if they had used military grade nerve agents, then far more people would have been affected than the Skripals and the poor cop, who was poisoned. And they would all be dead, not incapacitated. Which is how it struck me. Furthermore, the Russians couldn’t use their original stocks of the Novichoks poison, because this would have decayed after 27 years. Quite apart from the fact that the international chemical weapons authority confirmed the Russians had destroyed them. But as the scientist, who developed the toxin revealed, the knowledge of how to manufacture it is now out in the public sector, and so any number of countries or individuals could be behind the attack. Porton Down has refused to confirm that the Russians were responsible, and stated only that the nerve agent was of ‘Russian manufacture’.

But as far as May and the Tories, and their lapdogs in the Beeb are concerned, the Russians are responsible, and we’re facing a new threat from Putin. Who, according to BoJo, is now like Hitler. At least in the way he’s going to use next year’s world cup in Moscow, which will be like the Berlin Olympics in 1938.

I caught May pontificating on the Six O’clock News about how the Russians were threatening us and our European allies. The report also said she was trying to persuade the other European leaders to join her. Queue a shot of Angela Merkel going down a corridor, looking grim and serious. Then it moved on to Boris, saying that he wasn’t trying to stoke tensions with his wild comparison with Hitler. And on the local news this evening, they were also talking about the Salisbury poisoning and described the chemical used as ‘the Russian nerve agent’, although this is still open to doubt. Back to the Six O’clock News, the Beeb showed an Estonian diplomat talking about the Russian threat.

This is dangerous talk, whatever nonsense BoJo might try to bluster in order to justify his absurd comments. The Russians lost 20 million people fighting Hitler during the War. Millions of their squaddies were starved and worked to death as slave labourers after being captured as P.O.W.s by the Nazis. It’s therefore highly offensive for BoJo to make this stupid, insulting comparison. Also, as Simon Reeve showed in his documentary series about Russia a few months ago, the Russians are genuinely proud of their armed forces and the way they defended their homeland during the Great Patriotic War. Their equivalent of Remembrance Day/ Veteran’s Day is far more like a party, with food and drink, as well as marches and speeches, than the very solemn and austere ceremonies we go through every November 11.

I don’t doubt that Putin will try to exploit the World Cup to promote his government and his country, but the accusation that he will is more than a little hypocritical. Every government uses international sporting events like the World Cup, or the Olympics, to promote themselves. I can still remember the Americans at the Atlanta Olympics in the 1980s. As for Russia threatening Europe, in many cases it’s the other way. Russia is ringed by NATO bases right along its borders. This was after the original treaty with Gorbachev pledged NATO not to expand up to its borders in return for Gorby withdrawing all their troops from eastern Europe and allowing the former satellites to go their own way. I’m sympathetic to the fears of the Baltic States, who were reincorporated into the USSR after a brief period of independence when Stalin threw the Germans back in World War II. But at the same time, the Estonians are building monuments to Nazi collaborators as national heroes. And the supposedly democratic government of the Ukraine includes real, uniformed Nazis, who are now out on the streets of Kiev to keep order. But you won’t find that mentioned on the news, because obviously, the vast majority of people in this country will not want to support a blatantly Fascist regime.

So once again, we’re being fed lies by the Tories and the media, lies which could take us to war. And who benefits? Well, May and the Tories, obviously. She was seven points behind Labour in the polls, and the Tories are looking at being wiped out in London. Thus, she’s trying to copy Thatcher, and act like a ‘bargain-basement Boadicea’, rattling her sabre furiously. The real reason for this tension is less a military threat from Russia, and far more the fact that the American multinationals, who thought they would get to control the Russian economy under Yeltsin, have found themselves stymied by Putin. It’s like the Iraq invasion all over again: dodgy claims of weapons of mass destruction, and economic motives – western corporate interests – disguised as an attack, or resistance to, an evil tyrant.

Putin is a thug, and a real enemy of democracy. Journalists and opposition politicians in Russia have been arbitrarily arrested, jailed, beaten and murdered by his thugs. And I don’t doubt that at least some of the 14 Russians, who’ve died over here in suspicious circumstances, have been assassinated by him. But Corbyn is right about the Salisbury poisoning. It isn’t clear that he’s behind it, and we need far more proof before stoking up international tensions.

But the Tories are doing it anyway, for their own cynical electoral advantage, and those of their corporate financers. And if there is a war, the people who will pay the price will be ordinary working people. When Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the Republican Neocon leadership were very careful to make sure that none of their sons or daughters were likely to be posted to the conflict zone. As opposed to the poor and working class, whose districts were targeted by the recruiting sergeants.

As for Boris, looking at the way he has conducted himself as foreign secretary, I can only agree with the Russians. It is amazing that he is the spokesman of a nuclear power. Actually, it’s downright terrifying.

For all our sakes, we need the media to hold May and the rest to account, to ask the hard questions that Laura Kuenssberg and the rest of the Beeb’s pro-Tory lackeys aren’t asking. Before the Tories start another war for the benefit of multinational capital.


China Mieville’s The City and The City Coming to BBC

March 17, 2018

Yesterday I caught a very brief trailer for what looks like a forthcoming Beeb adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and The City. This is a murder mystery set in a fictional eastern European country, and the Amazon review of it declares that stylistically it resembles Raymond Chandler and Orwell’s 1984, amongst other classic authors. Mieville’s an SF author, so it’s no surprise that this not going to be a straightforward thriller, but involves weirdness.

I’ve got a feeling that the book won at least one SF fiction award, though I could be wrong. Mieville himself is actually very left. He edited a book on Marxism and Science Fiction, which I found in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s a couple of years ago. He and the late, great Ian M. Banks also gave a very interesting interview to the small press SF/genre fiction magazine The Edge back in the 1990s, where they made it very plain that they disliked the Tories and had absolute contempt for New Labour for their cuts to the welfare state.

Some of the attempts the Beeb has made in recent years to do proper SF or Fantasy dramas have been rather disappointing. But this could be worth watching.

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.


Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Charismatic experiences
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.

Physics Textbook on Cosmology and Gravitation

March 15, 2018

M.V. Berry, Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing 1989).

Yesterday came the news of the death of the great British physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. Hawking had suffered for most of his adult life from motor neurone disease, since he was diagnosed with it in his early 20s. He was given only three years to live, but instead managed to live out a very full lifespan working on his theories of the origin of the universe and Black Holes. He was a great ambassador for science. His book, A Brief History of Time, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1980s, although he admitted that it was probably a book few finished. And he showed that it was still possible for a disabled person to do cutting edge research, provided they had the necessary technical and medical support. In his case, it was his wheelchair and the machine that allowed him to speak, first of all by keying in the words, then by twitching just a single muscle. Some of the praise seemed a bit too fulsome to me. Like when they started saying that he was the greatest scientist since Newton and Einstein. I don’t think he was. And Hawking on his own didn’t unlock the secrets of universe or Black Holes, as the Beeb’s presenters also claimed. As for his great sense of humour, well, it existed, as his appearance on shows like The Simpsons demonstrated, but my memory of it is marred by him turning up with the TV critic, Victor Lewis Smith, telling fart jokes and laughing on the 1990s series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith. But it really was inspiring to see how he was a great hero to the ‘A’ level students at a science fair yesterday, and how he had inspired them to become interested in science.

One of the complaints Richard Dawkins has made about popular science programmes is that they’re too ‘dumbed-down’. He points out that they have to have lots of explosions, and they mustn’t include equations, in case that scares people off. There’s a lot with which I don’t agree with Dawkins. I’m not an atheist, and have argued on this blog against him and the other militant atheists. But he is right here. Scientists writing the popular science books have said that they’ve been told by their publishers to leave equations out, because every equation in a book damages sales.

I think this is the wrong attitude to have. It’s why I’ve put up this piece about the above book by M.V. Berry. It’s an undergraduate physics textbook, which does contain the fundamental mathematical equations for this area of physics. Its contents include

1. Introduction

2. Cosmography
2.1 What the universe contains
2.2 The cosmic distance hierarchy and the determination of galactic densities
2.2.1 Parallax
2.2.2 Distance from velocity measurements
2.2.3 Distance from apparent luminosity
2.2.4 Weighing galaxies
2.3 The red shift and the expansion of the universe.

3. Physical base of general relativity
3.1 The need for relativistic ideas and a theory of gravitation.
3.2 Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: gravity
3.3. Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: inertial frames and absolute space.
3.4 Inadequacy of special relativity.
3.5 Mach’s principle, and gravitational waves.
3.6 Einstein’s principle of equivalence.

4 Curved spacetime and the physical mathematics of general relativity.
4.1 Particle Paths and the separation between events
4.2 Geodesics
4.3 Curved spaces
4.4 Curvature and gravitation.

5 General relativity near massive objects
5.1 Spacetime near an isolated mass.
5.2 Around the world with clocks.
5.3 Precession of the perihelion of Mercury
5.4 Deflection of light
5.5 Radar echoes from planets
5.6 Black Holes

6 Cosmic Kinematics
6.1 Spacetime for the smoothed-out universe
6.2 Red shifts and horizons
6.3 Apparent luminosity
6.4 Galactic densities and the darkness of the night sky.
6.5 Number counts

7 Cosmic dynamics
7.1 Gravitation and the cosmic fluid
7.2 Histories of model universes
7.3 The steady state theory
7.4 Cosmologies in which the strength of gravity varies

8 In the beginning
8.1 Cosmic black-body radiation.
8.2 Condensation of galaxies
8.3 Ylem.

Appendix A: Labelling astronomical objects
Appendix B: Theorema Egregium
Solutions to odd-numbered problems
Useful numbers.

there’s also a bibliography and index.

I’m not claiming to understand the equations. I struggled at both my ‘O’ level maths and physics, and what I know about science and astronomy I learned mostly through popular science books. But in the mid-1990s I wanted to see at least some of the equations scientists used in their explorations and modelling of the universe. One of the popular science books I was reading said at the time that this book was at the level that people with ‘A’ level maths could understand, and this didn’t seem quite so much a jump from my basic maths skills. So I ordered it. I’m afraid I can’t say that I’ve read it properly, despite the fact that I keep meaning to. Some of the equations are just too much for me, but I can follow the explanations in the text. I’m putting this notice of the book up here, in case there are any budding Stephen or Stephanie Hawkingses out there, who want to go a bit further than the pop-sci explanations, and see for themselves what the maths behind it all is like.

The Beeb also said in their eulogy for the great man, that Hawking hoped that the people reading his A Brief History of Time would come away with one point, even if they hadn’t finished it: that the universe is governed by rational law. Actually, this ideas isn’t unique to Hawking by a very, very long way. It actually comes from the Middle Ages, and is the assumption that makes science possible. Hawking was an agnostic, I believe, and many scientists are atheists. But this assumption that the universe is governed by rational laws ultimately comes from Christian theology. The founds of modern science in the Renaissance pointed to the passages in the Bible, in which God’s Wisdom creates the universes and establishes the boundaries and courses of natural phenomena, like the tides and stars. And the anarchist of science, Feuerabend, pointed out that the assumption that the laws of the universe all form a consistent whole come from Christian doctrine, quoting the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas: ‘We must believe that the laws of the universe are one, because God is one.’

Hawking has passed away, but it’s clear that he has inspired many more people to become interested in this rather arcane branch of the sciences. I hope this continues, despite the Tories’ attack on education and science and research for its own sake.

Andrew Marr Praises Steven Pinker’s Book on Science, Rationality and Free Markets

February 28, 2018

Mike has posted a number of pieces on his blog commenting on the right-wing bias displayed by Andrew Marr on his Sunday morning show. One recent example of this was his comment to a Tory guest, who came on immediately after he had given a hard interview to someone from the Labour Party. His interview of the Tory was softer, and at the end of it he leaned over to tell her that she had done ‘very well’. Or something like it.

I’m not surprised by this bias. Marr is a fan of the free market, the sacred ideology at the heart of Thatcherism, against which no-one is allowed to blaspheme or question. He was in the I newspaper a few weeks ago praising Steven Pinker’s new book, which argues that the world has got immensely better due to science, reason and markets. Pinker’s a neuroscientist and atheist polemicist. The book’s a successor to his previous work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. This was written to refute the claim that the 20th century was the bloodiest period in human history. This argument has been made in defence of religion, as much atheist polemic is based on the violence and bloodshed that has been generated by religion. But the 20th century is a problem, as the massacres and genocides there took place within an increasingly secular world, and in the case of the horrors committed by Communist regimes, were perpetrated by aggressively atheist regimes. And in the case of the Fascist regimes, it’s questionable how religious they were. General Franco in Spain believed that he was defending Christianity from secularism and materialism when he launched his attack on the Republican government, and horrifically many Christians did support the Fascist regimes against the supposed threats of Communism and Socialism. I’m well aware that Hitler claimed that he was doing ‘the Lord’s work’ in persecuting the Jews in Mein Kampf, but in his Table Talk he has nothing but contempt for Christianity, and wants astronomical observatories set up near schools as part of a scientific campaign against the religion. Hitler’s own religious beliefs seem to have been a kind of monistic pantheism, possibly not that far removed from those of the Monist League, who also sported the swastika as their symbol. As for Mussolini, the Italian dictated signed the Lateran Accords with the papacy, in which the Pope finally recognised Italy’s existence as a state in return for Roman Catholic religious education in schools. But il Duce had started out as a radical socialist, and many members of the Fascist party still were vehemently atheist. Much depended on the religious opinions of the local Fascist ras whether Roman Catholic religious education was taught in the schools in his area. I don’t wish to go into this argument now, whether these regimes were really atheist or not, or if the 20th century really was the bloodiest period in human history. I just wish to make the point that this was the issue at the heart of Pinker’s previous book.

Pinker’s new book apparently tells us that everything’s getting better, including the environment, and Pinker marshals an impressive arrays of facts. But all this said to me was that people and governments have become more ecologically conscious. It does not mean that we aren’t facing the devastating loss of an extraordinary number of this planet’s animal and plant species, or that we face catastrophic global warming which may make the Middle East uninhabitable.

But even more questionable is Pinker’s and Marr’s assertion that modern, post-Enlightenment society has been immensely improved thanks to the science, reason and markets. In the case of science and reason, at one level the statement is obviously true. Human life has benefited immensely from scientific advance, particularly in medicine. But the view that science and reason didn’t exist before then is one that many Medieval scholars would strenuously reject. In contrast to the stereotypes, the Middle Ages actually wasn’t anti-science. There are poems from the 12th-13th centuries celebrating it, and the new knowledge that was flooding into Europe from the Islamic world. The 15th century English poem, The Court of Sapience, lists the various branches of knowledge known to the medieval world, and celebrates them as the area of ‘Dame Sapience’, an idealised personification of wisdom. As for superstition and the occult, historians have also pointed out that the Middle Ages were also an age of scepticism as well as faith. Medieval theologians wrote texts arguing that visions of demons were more likely caused by a full stomach interfering with the correct functioning of the nerves, and so causing bad dreams. Others doubted whether the seers, who claimed to be able to identify thieves through peering in bowls of water or other reflecting surfaces, had any such powers, and were simply using common knowledge to put the blame on notorious thieves. And in contrast to what Marr apparently thinks, free market capitalism did not suddenly emerge in the 18th century with the French Physiocrats and then Adam Smith. In fact, some Christian theologians were arguing for free trade as far back as the thirteenth century.

As for free market capitalism benefiting humanity, the evidence today is that it really doesn’t. The neoliberalism ushered in by Thatcher and Reagan has done nothing but make the lives of the poor much poorer across the world, and in so doing has increased international tension and political violence. The Korean economist, Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, shows how the strong economies of the world’s developed nations were all created, not by free trade, but by protectionism.

This is very clearly not something any true-blue Thatcherite wants to hear. But it also shows the strange, cult-like nature of the ideology of free trade capitalism. A number of writers have pointed out the apparently illogical, absolute belief its supporters have, even when they are shown the plentiful evidence to the contrary. They still go on believing and demanding free market solutions, even when it is abundantly clear to everyone else that not only do they not work, they are even causing immense harm. And Marr is clearly one of these true believers. He also seems to have uncritically accepted the view that science, reason and free market capitalism were all products of the Enlightenment, when academic historians have been pushing the origins of science and capitalism further back to the Middle Ages, and demonstrated that the Age of Faith was also one of Reason, however irrational it now seems to us.

Marr’s praise of the book and its promotion of the free market also gives more than an indication of his own political beliefs, and why he is much less sympathetic to left-wing guests on his show than those from the right. He’s another member of the cult of neoliberal market capitalism, and this has to be protected at all costs from unbelievers. Even when he and the Beeb swear impartiality.

Radio 4 Programme on Douglas Adams, and New Series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 27, 2018

This Saturday, 3rd March 2018, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme on Douglas Adams and his ideas for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on papers at Cambridge University. The programme’s part of their Archive Hour series, at 8.00 O’clock in the evening. The blurb for it on page 119 of the Radio Times reads

John Lloyd explores a collection of Douglas Adams’ private papers written as the latter’s ideas for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took shape.

There’s a bit more about the programme on the previous page, 118, which runs

Don’t Panic! It’s the Douglas Adams Papers

As part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on Radio 4 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a new series begins on Radio 4 on Thursday. It includes unused material held at Cambridge University by author Douglas Adams, and Adams’ papers are the basis of his friend and collaborator John Lloyd’s tribute this evening. The tribute inevitably hinges on Adams’ famous inability to write. He “got stuck”. But the results of his anguish impressed such fans as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, both of whom appear. A priceless homage to a comedy genius.

And there’s a two-page feature on him on pages 114 & 115.

The new series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Radio 4 at 6.30, on Thursday 8th March. The new series’ entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, and the listing for it in the Radio Times runs

Simon Jones returns as Arthur Dent in a new sci-fi comedy tale based on Dirk Maggs’ novel And Another Thing, with additional material by creator Douglas Adams. It sees Arthur and the rest in an adventure involving Viking Gods and Irish confidence tricksters-not to mention the first glimpse of the Eccentrica Gallumbits.

I don’t think I’ll be listening to it, as I went off Hitchhiker and Adams way back in the 1990s. I loved the first two books, but their quality steadily went down, and I’ve had no desire to read the Dirk Gently stories or anything else Adams’ wrote. And I also wasn’t impressed by the way Adams got very sniffy in an interview on the radio with Paxman, when Paxo told him he wrote science fiction, ‘but it was good’, and Adams denied that he did. Hitchhiker clearly is SF, but it seems Adams either didn’t respect the genre due to literary snobbishness, or simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an SF writer. I can also remember him on another radio programme back in the 1990s telling an audience of schoolchildren that he was a ‘wordsmith’. I’m sure that’s true, in the sense that Adams was genuinely concerned with making sure his work was exactly right, but it still sounds more than a little pretentious and conceited when the uses the term to describe himself.

Stephen Hawking to Play The Book in New Series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 18, 2018

The I newspaper yesterday reported that the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, is set to play the Book in a new radio series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Entitled ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Edition’ the series will commemorate the original show on Radio 4 back in 1978, featuring the original cast.

I loved the original series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the first two books based on the show, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. However, I lost interest in it after the third book. I tried reading the fourth, only to give up. I think by that time Douglas Adams himself was growing tired of writing them. I’ve heard someone say on an interview that he was only lured back to write his last Hitch-Hiker book by the publisher’s promise that in it he could destroy every possible Earth in every possible universe. So I’m not sure I’ll listen to it, especially as the series is being carried on by other writers.

I also wasn’t impressed by Adams’ expressed contempt for the genre he wrote in. Back in the 1990s he was interviewed on the radio by Paxo, who said his book was Science Fiction, but different. It was good. Adams replied by saying that he didn’t write Science Fiction. Which is odd, because that’s what Hitch-Hiker is. But I guess Adams wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as a genre writer.

At that time the prejudice of the literary establishment towards Science Fiction and Fantasy was much stronger than it is now. I can remember seeing Terry Pratchett speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, saying how the organisers looked on him as if he was going to talk to people about fixing motorcycles. There’s a clip of the BBC arts programme, The Late Review, in which the Oxford lecturer and poet, Tom Paulin, and a female litterateur are asked to review one of Pratchett’s books, where they both make very disparaging remarks. The woman states that she felt like writing across it in big lines ‘I cannot read any more’. Paulin compared it to lifting up a stone to find all these weird people doing weird things underneath it. And going further back to the 1950s Brian Aldiss commented in The Trillion Year Spree that at that time, despite being championed by Kingsley Amis, pornography had a better reputation than Science Fiction amongst the literary elite.

Pratchett had to fight against that literary snobbishness throughout his life, but is now being taken very seriously by critics. I think Adams avoided it. Back in the ’90s he and Hitch-Hiker were the subjects of one edition of the South Bank Show with Melvin Bragg. But perhaps the price of that critical acclaim was his denial that he wrote Science Fiction at all.

But other people are different, and so I’ve no doubt that there are millions of Hitch-Hiker fans out there, who will be delighted to hear the news. They know who they are. They’re the people, who bought merchandising, like the Hitch-Hiker bath towels. This was a large, white bath towel with the text from the HHGG talking about how every Hitch-Hiker really needed to know where their towel was on it. I found one of those in Forever People, the comics/ SF shop in Bristol. The show’s fans are also the people, who organised conventions with dubious names like ‘Slartibartday’, after one of the creators of the Earth, Slartibartfast.

Hawking is in many ways an ideal choice for The Book after the death of Peter Jones, who was its original voice on Radio 4 and then in the BBC 2 TV series. He already has an electronic voice to fit the character of an electronic book, and is a world famous space scientist and advocate of space colonisation. But you wonder how massive his ego will be after playing a publication, which the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes as, amongst some people, having displaced the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.

TNT Nation: Daily Mail Racists Freak Out as Cheddar Man Revealed as Black

February 15, 2018

One of the big stories last week was the unveiling of the reconstructed face of Cheddar Man. As Jeff Waldorf points out in this clip from TNT Nation, this is a prehistoric man, named after where he was found, and not a man literally made of cheese. Cheddar Man, or rather, his skeleton, was found in the caves in Cheddar in Somerset, England, way back in 1906. The skeleton’s 16,000 or so years old, and so dates from about the end of the last Ice Age. The scientists reconstructing his features also used for the first time DNA analysis to gauge his skin and eye colour. And it turns out that he had ‘dark to black skin’ and blue eyes.

They scientists were able to do this using DNA they were able to extract from the skeleton. This had genetic markers similar to those for dark skin, which is also present in ten per cent of the modern British population. Cheddar Man’s colouring was a surprise for the scientists, as they expected him to have white skin and blond or light hair, as an adaptation to the extreme cold. Commenting on the revelation that he was black, one scientist said that it showed that British has not always been associated with Whiteness. It had changed, and would change again in the future. I think they were also able to trace the ultimate origins of Cheddar Man’s people, as they entered Britain from a route across southern Europe ultimately going back to Turkey.

I’m not surprised by this revelation. It’s been suggested since at least the 1990s that the first anatomically modern humans – Homo Sapiens Sapiens – who entered and colonised Europe, were dark-skinned. Back in the 1990s a Channel 4 series on human evolution showed a reconstruction of these people, as they would have looked 40,000 or so years ago, edging along the primeval European countryside as Black. The programme also consciously reversed the idea, promoted in many past books and articles on them, that the Neanderthals were Black. The programme instead argued that they would have had light skins as an adaptation to the arctic temperatures in Europe. If you also look at the remains of our ancient ancestors, you also find that they have more archaic features, like a strong brow ridge, than the other humans in Africa, who were much more gracile. I think its these archaic features which led some archaeoanthropologists to state that some of these humans were of the same physical build as Aboriginal Australians, because these ancient people have also retained some features of archaic humanity.

The real shock, as one of the articles about Cheddar Man said last week, is how recently White skin and hair evolved – in the last 10,000 years or so. It’s much more recent than they expected. However, I can remember reading in a review of the film The Clan of the Cave Bear in Starburst one of the criticisms of that movie. It starred Daryl Hannah as a Cro Magnon woman growing up with a family of Neanderthals. Hannah’s blond, and the article pointed out that blonde hair is only supposed to have evolved 10,000 or so years ago – much later than the age the film, and the book on which it was based, by Jean Auel, is set.

The revelation that Cheddar Man was Black, however, set the racists off. And here Waldorf reads out and tears to pieces some of the comments about this story left on the Daily Mail’s website. And they go from the reasonable, to the completely mad.

Waldorf begins with the comment from one individual, who wonders if the genetic reconstruction is accurate, given the age of the skeleton and difficulty of extracting genetic information from remains that ancient. He states, however, that he isn’t a scientist, but has simply watched a lot of documentaries. Waldorf mocks him for this, which is actually unfair. It’s a reasonable question, as the impression I’ve had from watching the same kind of documentaries is that ancient DNA can be extremely delicate, and is very often fragmentary, so it can actually be very difficult to extract useful genetic information from human remains. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, which made this point when discussing the Neanderthals to show why scientists have not tried to recreate them genetically.

And then there’s the completely bonkers. Another commenter wondered if there wasn’t something deeper going on here. They smelt a conspiracy, as the revelation that Cheddar Man was Black came after, so this person believed, the collapse of the ‘out of Africa’ theory of human origins, and the proof that the Ancient Egyptians weren’t African. First of all, if the theory that humans first evolved in Africa and then spread outwards across the globe has collapsed, then no-one’s told me. Or any of the anthropologists and archaeologists working in this field. The only people I can think of who reject the theory are, er, marginal thinkers. Or cranks. Waldorf takes apart the claim that the ancient Egyptians weren’t Africans, by pointing out that ancient Egypt actually had a very diverse population, and that in the south they tended to be darker than in the north. Also, Egypt is part of Africa.

This comment seems to echo back to the views of some of the White racial supremacists that the ancient Egyptians, as the citizens of an advanced ancient civilisation, couldn’t possibly be Black, and were instead White and European in appearance. This is, of course, vehemently rejected by AFrocentrist historians, who argue instead that they were Black. If you look at the way the ancient Egyptians depicted themselves in their art – in the tomb paintings, for example, they are lighter than the darker skinned Nubian peoples to their south. Male ancient Egyptians are portrayed as having reddish brown skin, while women are yellow. Nubians are painted with black skin. Even so, they are still darker than the Europeans, which appear in their art, such as the people of Minoan Crete. These are depicted with pink skin. The scientifically accepted view is that the peoples of North Africa, including ancient Egypt, were White.

However, way back in the 1990s or the early part of this century some anthropologists reconstructed the faces of people from Roman Egypt. This found that their features were more strongly African than the portraits of them painted on to their mummy cases, which made them look more European. There were definite cultural and economic reasons why an ancient Egyptian really wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Black’. Roman Egypt was a horrible, racist, apartheid state, where the indigenous Egyptian population was taxed more than those of Greek or European descent. This would have left many Egyptians with feelings of inferiority about their African features, which they would have tried to cover up.

There was also the suggestion by one archaeologist that the ultimate origins of the ancient Egyptian civilisation lay in a Black tribe from further south, which migrated to the north. This archaeologist came to this conclusion through examining some of the early henge monuments, which predate the ancient Egyptian civilisation proper by thousands of years. I think these were similar to those in the Black African nations further south. One of the stones in these monuments also seemed deliberately shaped to resemble a cow. Hathor was the ancient Egyptians’ cow goddess, and so there’s the suggestion that she was a survival from this ancient, pastoralist Black African culture.

I also came across another story in the paper recently, which said that the ancient Egyptians weren’t African after all. I didn’t get the opportunity to read it – I only glimpsed the headline in passing – and so can’t really comment on it. But it seems unlikely to me. The Egyptologist John Romer criticised the notion that the ancient Egyptians were White way back in the 1990s in his Channel 4 series, Great Excavations. In one episode, he discussed the various diffusionist theories of human evolution and progress, and how they were influenced by 19th century theories of racial supremacy and conquest. Diffusionism is the archaeological theory that advances in civilisation occur through successive societies and races conquering their predecessors. Early archaeologists were busy examining the remains of these past cultures, and especially their skull and head shapes, in order to develop a classification of the various races these different physical types represented. As the ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilisation, they confidently expected them to have their origins in the lighter skinned peoples further east.

Except that they didn’t. The ancient Egyptian people remained the same stock, unchanged, as their culture developed and flourished around them. They created their culture themselves, without any other invading race creating or imposing a superior culture after them. Of course, at times ancient Egypt was conquered by outside nations, such as the Semitic Hyksos kings and the Nubians, who produced a line of Black pharaohs. They were also an important power themselves in the ancient Near East, at one point holding Syria and Palestine. But ancient Egyptian culture was their own creation, and not the result of invasion by some biologically superior race. And as far as I know, the only people, who believe that the ancient Egyptians had blonde hair and blue eyes are neo-Nazis.

Now I think there is a subtle message behind this recent discovery of Cheddar Man’s complexion. I think some of the comments made by the experts about his colouring and Britishness – that it is only relatively recently that White skin has evolved, and that Britishness is not necessarily connected to Whiteness – have been made to make an anti-racist point. It wasn’t just the scientist quoted by the TNT clip. There was another quote in the papers by someone saying that we may have to rethink the relationship between Britishness and Whiteness. It’s a reasonable, scientifically informed comment. But the recreation of Cheddar Man with dark skin clearly touched a nerve amongst the racists reading the Daily Heil.

As for Cheddar Man himself, he still has descendants in the area. Or at least, a descendant. A few years ago scientists sampled his DNA, and then tested the other people in Cheddar to see if they were related. It turns out one of them was – the headmaster of the local school. He was quite happy about it, but his mother was really upset, worrying what people would think. Well, if they’re sensible, they won’t think anything disparaging. As I said, these people were exactly like us modern humans. They had the same physical features and the same intelligence. They weren’t lumbering ape-men by any means. The only difference between modern people and them is that they lived over 10,000 years ago, when much of Britain was a frozen wilderness. I can even imagine some people being slightly envious, that this chap has an ancestry that can be traced back to this incredibly remote period.

Woohoo! X-Files Coming Back on Monday on Channel 5

February 3, 2018

After a hiatus of about a year, the new X-Files series on Channel 5, Monday, 4th February 2018, at 9.00 in the evening. This has the remaining regulars of the old series in it – Duchovny and Anderson, Mitch Pileggi and the Cigarette Smoking Man, as well as Annabeth Gish, playing Agent Monica Reyes, who appeared in the very last series of the old X-Files. The listing for it in the Radio Times runs

The drama returns as an unconscious Scully is rushed to hospital, where a neurosurgeon discovers she is suffering from a frenzy of neural activity. (p. 74).

And the blurb for it a few pages earlier on page 71 also runs

When we were last in the company of Mulder and Scully, he was succumbing to a virus that was stripping his immune system, awhile she was staring wide-eyed at a UFO descending from the heavens. It was a whopper of a cliffhanger, and one that, unfortunately, gets resolved using storytelling techniques frowned upon by primary-school teachers.

But that is the perennial problem when The X-Files does these government-conspiracy ‘mythology arc’ episodes: they initially seem tricksy and knotty, but tend to fall apart at the slightest unpicking. Thankfully, we have a standalone case to look forward to next week, so not all hope was lost.

And here’s the trailer for it I found on YouTube. Amongst the delights promised is a meeting between Mulder and Scully and the man, who set up the X-Files, Skinner doing dodgy things for the Cigarette Smoking Man, and a carnivorous monster created through the merging of human and alien DNA.

Yay! Paranoia, the paranormal, UFOs, urban legends, weird science and general high-strangeness is back!

Thanks to Trump, We’re Now Two Minutes From Midnight

January 27, 2018

This is the Doomsday Clock set up by the Organisation of Atomic Scientists, to show graphically how close the world is to nuclear omnicide. It used to be five minutes to midnight, and I remember the New Cold War of the 1980s, when Thatcher and Reagan nearly started a nuclear conflict. As did a computer malfunction over on the Soviet side. The only way we served that is because of an heroic Red Army officer, who insisted on visual confirmation because he correctly didn’t trust machines. The man was reduced to a nervous wreck afterwards, but he’s a hero. He saved the world.

Now we’ve moved closer to full-scale nuclear war. The scientists blame Trump, his stupid remarks on Twitter, and his sparring and provocation of Kim Jong-Un.

The man’s a menace. For the safety of all humanity, and our beautiful planet, he has to go. Now.