Friday, 24 September 2010

Science funding

The UK is having a severe series of cuts. 25% will be cut over the next five years, ie 6% per year across all government departments except the NHS. I'm not going to comment on the economic wisdom of this because I dont know and I dont think most economists do either. However, given that fact we must decide how to lobby our government. So for the month leading up to the spending review (October 20th) lobbyists from everyone with a stake in government will come to plead thier own particular band of exceptionalism. The resounding message from across the land will be "there should be cuts, just not this ... or that ... or that ... and while you're at it can I have some more?"

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


... I'm honestly not sure if I should write this. Firstly because it's very far from the normal fare of this blog. Secondly because it's not a subject I have even average knowledge of. And thirdly because angsty-white-teen-blogs-about-love is the single least interesting thing on the internet. But non the less:

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Philosophy - states and power

I've given a definition of should, now a definition is all well and good, but if it doesn't fit some useful purpose then there's no point having it. So I'm going to test this idea with a few questions, first, the most important and grandest of questions, the nature, extent and existence of the state. If you dont like my answer to these questions then there are 3 possible responses, you must disagree with my facts by showing that a belief I have about the world is false, you must disagree with my analysis by saying that I draw unfair conclusions or you can say that good reasoning lead to a bad result, in which case you must reject my definition of should. So then, the issue:

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Science and art

I've always been astonished by artists, not by their ability to create, that is very great, but not astonishing. What I find amazing is that a group of people with such amazing empathy and understanding of their fellow humans, indeed, a group of people who pride themselves on it, can so fail to understand how the other half live.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Morality part 2

Ok, after delaying for far too long I feel I need to respond to these questions with something more substantial than a comment, so here we go.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Religion on twitter

The surprising thing about religion on twitter is just how unsurprising it is. If we take this very unscientific poll we see a lot of things we might expect. Firstly the raw data, all religions.

There are very few chunks that are very large, religious monopolies dont exist on the plural internet. The largest single one is atheist, unsurprising given that twitter is dominated by wealthy Europeans and Americans, and that the internet in general is great at getting atheists to gang up and crash polls of this kind. Another thing to notice is how far from negligible the small religions are, pagans account for whole 3%, wiccans another 2%. The raw data gives you an idea of how important this effect is, even the smallest group represented: Confucianists have 26 votes to their name.

So the raw data give us, dont ignore the little guys, there are atheists on the internet.

If we categorise religions however, we get another couple of ideas, again, not very suprising. The largest group is the broadly non-religious including agnostics, followed by the Christians, then the other Abrahamic religions, (note that this is 12% Islam and 2% Judaism), then the others, still an impressive 14%.

What can we work out from this? That the representation of Islam is a lot lower than you would expect from world totals, likewise the other major world religions besides Christianity. This is at least partially explained by this poll being run in English, ask the same question in Arabic or Hindi and I'll bet you'd get a different result. The rest might be explained by the penetration of the internet in various countries and social groups. Obviously there are far fewer Buddhists and Confucians than worldwide figures would make you expect because of the Chinese internet, likewise African folk religions.

One thing that might be interesting to note is how massively over-represented is the category "Other Christian". Roughly speaking the other categories are in the right proportions to eachother, but other is at least an order of magnitude too large. Is this tendency for people of all branches of Christianity to call themselves Christian even to put themselves into an "other" category something that is well known and studied? I can understand this result happening if there was a label "Christian", but the assumption of the poll is that you should select a denomination so people are actively rejecting such labels.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Labour Leadership

Hello, time for some more ill-advised party political stuff.

So it turns out that after Brown resigned they had to pick a new person to be in charge of the moaners, sorry, Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Now the most obvious and best person to do this would be the current temporary leader Harriet Harman, she's got several features that make her easily the only sensible candidate. A) I've heard of her, B) She's damned good at PMQs, which is basically the entire job of being leader of the opposition, C) ... well basically that's it. But that's all she needs.

Unfortunately, real world politics is never as simple as that, and she has ruled herself out, which is a very sensible move on her part. This way she gets to lock herself into the position of deputy leader forever and have a shot at a lot more power over a lot longer period than she would if she ran for leader and won, and a hell of a lot more than if she failed.

So that being done I guess we'll have to go with one of the people who has run, these are, in the order that I remembered their existence:

  • David Miliband, who is apparently just Tony Blair again. Which is great if electoral success, a lot of power, disastrous decisions, being hated by everyone and getting millions selling really bad books and giving bad speeches is your thing.
  • Ed Miliband, brother of Tony Blair. Apparently he's interesting because he thinks that socialism is more important than being electable.
  • Diane Abbot, a black woman. Used to sit next to that ugly chap on This Week.
  • Ed Balls, he's called Balls, he looks like a headtecher, but not a very successful one. I think he thinks that the teachers are planning to gang up on him at break.
  • Some guy from the north.
What's shocking about this leadership contest is just how avoidable it has been. I consider myself reasonably well informed about politics, but I know almost nothing, I know there's been a background of things happening and speeches made, but hand on heart I cannot name one notable event out of this entire contest. Not one moment where someone said something stupid, racist, insensitive, angry, impassioned, not one drunken punch-up after a hustings. I know that lots of things have been said and if I'd only go and find out what they were I'd know more, but that's not the point, this is politics, it's not about me finding out what you stand for, you have to tell me. you have to make it exciting. I'm not supporting the politics of spectacle, but would one of you please do something that will cause just one little trending topic on twitter.

There are a few complexities in working out who will win, because they somehow weigh votes of the MPs, the members of the Labour Party and the members of the various trades union (yes, trades union, that's apparently the way you say it if you're pointing attention to how much more grammar than any normal person you know) against each other. That and each of the 3 electorates gets to vote by AV. But, so far the impression I get is that David M. will win the first preference contest, but that he runs the serious risk of loosing if the second preferences are skewed in favour of Ed M.

I'm not a labour party supporter, nor do I think that electing any particular leader would be so massively better than any other either for Labour or for the country that I think it's worth my while campaigning. However, I am quietly pleased by the potential for Ed M. to win.

Firstly having an alleged socialist who isn't obviously an idiot in charge of a serious political party would be a nice change, there's not nearly enough choice in our politics at the moment, and a bit of distance between the parties cant hurt. Secondly I am told by a reliable source that Ed is regarded as a geek, this is excellent, there need to be far more geeks in positions of power, for far too long power has lain in he hands of the popular people of this world, and the time for a geek uprising to claim our rightful place back is long overdue. Third, and a little bit naughtily, if Ed gets in based on second preferences that would make the AV referendum a lot more interesting.

At the moment the Labour party has for reasons apparently best known to itself chosen to largely ally with the Tories against AV. Now I for one think this is a miscalculation and best and seriously misguided at best. AV alleges to be about political reform, and until recently a lot of the Labour party seemed to think so too. Now you can argue about the specifics of AV vs AV+ vs PR and the constituency reforms and the coalition and everything else, but seriously, Labour, here's a hint, you're supposed to be reforming, progressive, as a general rule if you're fighting against a reform and with the Tories then you need to seriously ask yourself what the hell you are doing.

However, if the leader of the Labour party were to be elected by AV, and specifically by AV, against the first preferences of his party, that would make strong arguments from the Labour party as an organisation a lot harder. Which at the very least goes a way towards balancing the party firepower. Which is a lot more interesting at the very least, even if it doesn't bring about some kind of miraculous world where the parties cancel out so the winner is chosen by the arguments rather than pure politics.

Friday, 3 September 2010

God and Stephen Hawking

It's not often that a story excites twitter so much it stays trending for more than a few hours. But the last 2 days solid "Stephen Hawking" has been stubbornly keeping to the top 5 or so terms used. I'd like to try and explain why and why he's right. Before I start though I'd like to add the disclaimer that everyone should use before discussing this: Stephen Hawking, comma, who is a fuck of a lot smarter than I am, comma, says:

God is not necessary to explain the universe.

Cue shocked noises ... or not. This is hardly news of course, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là"1 has been the maxim of a large number of (but very very far from all) scientists in the fully modern sense of the word. The difference is that Hawking has claimed this is the result of a genuine scientific result. I'd like to try and explain this result and what it means.

General relativity and energy

I'm not going to get too into the maths here, but in qualitative terms: We know from Einstein that gravity bends space. So a large object like the sun bends space into itself. thanks wikipedia This curvature has energy associated with it. Think of it like an elastic sheet, if you put something big on it it will bend, and this stores up energy. The important thing about gravity is that the energy you get is negative. Meaning that to get things beyond the pull of gravity you need to put energy in to get things very far away. So gravity can give us negative terms to cancel things out.

The big question is what this energy cancels out. Importantly we want to know if the total energy of the universe is positive, negative, or zero. Now there are a few factors to balance here. Firstly the energy in all the matter, that is the stuff, this has energy by E=mc2, to this you have to add dark matter and various other strange things. Secondly the energy associated with the universe expanding, we know that because of the big bang the universe is getting bigger, this moves objects apart, and so they gain gravitational potential energy. The last thing to work out is the total energy from all the small local bends, the curvature around all the stars and planets.

Luckily it turns out there's quite a simple way to add all this up. If the universe has positive or negative energy in total it will bend not just on the small scale but overall. If you walk around a hilly area you see lots of hills and valleys, but if you zoom out by going up in a helicopter you can see that overall there's no big change in the heights, there are never valleys somewhere that are higher than the hills somwhere else. But if you zoom out further, in a high plane or into space you can see that the whole earth is curved. It's bent right round on itself like a ball. This overall curvature is the big question. Because if there is an imbalance here then the whole universe will curve away like this. Only a universe where the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels with the positive energy from the matter is exactly flat, go as far as you like and things stay at the same level.

Now what Hawking has said, and he is right in this. Is that from what we can see with our telescopes, the universe looks really really flat. As far as we can tell it looks *exactly* flat.

A flat universe from nothing

This really matters for philosophers. Because there are big problems to be answered for any other kind of universe. We know that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but you can turn matter into energy, and vice versa, this is Einstein's E-mc2. This happens over and over again in high energy labs and in cosmic rays in space. Einstein says that if you have energy you can turn in into a much smaller amount of matter, and back again. So if you want to make a universe and fill it with stuff, you need a lot of energy to make it all. Now if this energy was more than gravity could make for you, then there's a big problem. Where did all this energy come from? We would need some kind of source of energy outside of the universe to make it. If the other way round there is too much energy from gravity and not enough stuff, then we have to ask where did all the energy go? Why has energy leaked out of the universe?

A flat universe is different. In a flat universe all the energy you need to make stuff is there because of gravity, nothing is created or destroyed. There is no violation of energy conservation. It is perfectly consistent with all known physics to say that the universe just make itself, from nothing.

nilio ex nilio

There is a high minded principle that a certain kind of philosopher loves very much. Nothing can come from nothing, things cannot be made from a vacuum. Such is the love of this idea that people say it in latin to make it sound like ancient wisdom. However, as with a lot of grand philosophical ideas, it's utter bullshit.

Stuff comes from nothing all the time. It's happening right now in every cubic millimetre of space in the entire universe. All over the universe right now and at all times particles are created and destroyed faster than you can imagine. This rush of particles and anti-particles popping into and out of existence is allowed and even demanded by physics. Particles come into existence in pairs that "cancel out" so that no energy is required to do this, so this means there's no violation of energy conservation and this happens so quickly and the particles so quickly pop back out of existence that the universe largely doesn't notice. This has been observed time and time again in laboratories and in cosmic rays from deep space. It's a fact, and you just have to deal with it no matter how much this ruins your grand philosophical notions.

So what Stephen Hawking has said is that there's nothing at all we know that stops the universe from just making itself from nothing. In fact, it's more or less demanded by the laws of physics as we understand it. So, he goes on. We do not need to suggest a creator, there is no requirement that gods be invoked to create everything, it was going to do it anyway.

Religion and physics

This is of course very very far from a proof that any gods do or do not exist. You cannot disprove gods using science, or at least, certain types of gods. Different gods are supposed to act in different ways, broadly we can think of a deistic type god, one which stays totally outside of the universe beyond creating it and makes no difference at all to the way things would be in the physical world if she wasn't there. You can say nothing at all about this type of god inside physics. However, there are other kinds of gods that do things, for instance perform miracles, create the world in seven days, heal people etc etc that can be tested. These gods are all (to the best of my knowledge) false, every rigorous test on a miracle that I know of has failed to show the predicted result. So many kinds of god can be disproved.

The question then is, has this result added any to the list of kinds of god that dont exist? Maybe. It's certainly placed limits on how gods could have made the universe, they cant have used any excess energy to do it, and they cant have done it in order to pump energy somewhere else. But really the significance of this is much like Darwin and evolution, it does not kill gods, it kills the necessity.

Before Darwin the watchmaker argument was really very strong. Atheists at this time really had to grit their teeth and say, "yeh, I know eyes look like cameras and people make cameras, but I'm sure there's some other explanation than gods". But after Darwin, this was no longer a matter of hope or faith, the mechanism was known, we didn't require as an explanation of the physical world to suppose any gods. If we didn't know this result Hawking is talking about, then would be a real question about how the energy got here or left, there's no known way for that non-zero total to have come about. Maybe gods would actually be a good explanation for such a universe. I dont think so, but that's largely a question of faith, not of science.

So ultimately I dont know if there is anything here for a religious person to be worried about. If it's an article of your faith that a god made the universe in order to pump excess energy into his home lighting grid then you may have to re-think that belief. But if not, if your idea of god or gods is consistent with a universe made from nothing then Hawking has said nothing that should worry you. Many people have an idea of a god or gods far beyond the reach of science, and such people shouldn't worry no matter how shouty the scientists get.

final thought

I was struck while thinking about this by just how consistent this is with some schools of Christian theology. A lot of people have argued that this result is impossible, you cannot have an uncaused cause, you cannot have something from nothing, life from non-life etc etc. But isn't that exactly what has been claimed by many thologians? The sentence "the universe simply is, it has no cause and needed nothing to make it exist, it made itself" may sound repellent, but replace "the universe" with "God" and you get good orthodox theology. God is the uncaused cause. Just call the universe God, and Hawking has just proved your religion.


1) "I had no need of that hypothesis." Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827) once gave a book on physics to the very well read Napoleon. Napoleon is alleged to have asked why he had not mentioned God as the creator, Laplace gave this as response.