Friday, 17 October 2008

A natural scientist pre-remembers ...

Two weeks ago, we received a call from someone in our office asking about alternative routes into work. She was stuck in traffic because an accident was causing congestion. Later we heard that the accident had involved a collision between a cyclist and a school bus. Being a commuter/cyclist myself I had to admit that I thought "ooh; that doesn't sound good".

When I arrived home from work in the evening, I found out that my wife, Christine, knew the victim; she was the star pupil at the school where Christine works as a library assistant. She and the other librarian had got to know the victim, Sarah Waterhouse, very well - and she had told them she was about to apply to Cambridge for Natural Sciences. She was killed almost immediately, apparently attempting to cross the road, when the bus hit her. See this link for the full story.

Although I did not know Sarah, she knew about me - Christine had told her that I also had read Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

Anything that happens that touches you like that is bound to trigger a flood of memories - happy ones for me of my days in Cambridge - and, sadly, ones that will never happen for Sarah.

As I did not know Sarah personally, I am not able to remember her, as her friends do. I went on the Friday to the spot near the accident opposite the police station to see all the flowers that had been laid there - it seems she was well loved. But these memories that I have are a kind of pre-remembering of what might have been for Sarah, and, in my own way, are a way of remembering this person I never even knew existed before she died.

There are so many of them:

The thrill of receiving the offer of a place.

The slight pull of homesickness on the first day after my parents left me, only to be swallowed up in the thrill of being invited to lots of freshers events and quickly making new friends.

The early morning sun slanting across the stone courts of Trinity College.

The mist rising off the Cam after an all night punting expedition.

Glamour and romance by the river, all lit up for the College ball.

Drinking port that was older than me at a College feast ( very dry and rich, not sweet like ordinary port).

The weird juxtaposition of standing in a very grand college room, drinking port (ordinary port this time), wearing gowns after Hall dinner, playing backgammon with the mathematicians, and listening to punk rock at indescribable volumes.

The smell of stone in the old buildings.

The river of cyclists pouring down Tennis Court Road between Natural Sciences lectures in different venues.

The maths lecturer who covered 24 blackboards with hieroglyphic squiggles (the trademark of mathematicians) in the course of a one hour lecture.

Staying up over coffee till two o'clock in the morning putting the world to rights; or trying to come to terms with the philosophical implications of Quantum Mechanics.

And countless friends, some for life, some receding into the past as fond memories.

And my life after unrolling like a carpet; a Masters' degree; a career in a scientific institution, a family, children, a doctorate ... and so it goes on.

And all of these things would have been waiting for Sarah, too, were it not for the tragic accident that ended her life even before the first of the items on my list.

One can only say "Rest In Peace", but have the sad feeling that one whose life that had only just begun to unroll into this world that meant so much to me, should not be needing to rest.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

On not trying to fix you

Back in July, I posted a YouTube link to a beautiful song, Fix You, by Coldplay.

It is easy in the emotion of the music to give assent to what is expressed in the chorus of the song:

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try
To fix you

But of course it's never as easy as that - there are no quick fixes for those in the kind of emotional distress that is portrayed in the song. So here is my creative response to those words ...

Not trying to fix you

I have no lights to guide you home,
Instantly incandescent and full of hope.
The little flame that burns in my heart
Will perhaps suffice
To see you, stumbling and hesitant,
Around the next corner;
Accompany you on the next twist
In your path to light or darkness.

For half an hour or maybe more
I'll be alongside you
An arbour of safety
In which, if you are able,
You'll begin to unpick
The fettering threads of despair
And release to me
The gift of your story.

And I, not guiding,
But quietly receiving
Will try to fix you
By not trying to fix you.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet?

Find the answer here

However, it did destroy a triffid belonging to a friend of mine...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Large Hadron Collider Rap

Just LOVED this, physics geek that I am.

"Alpinekat" (Kate McAlpine) is a science writer at the CERN experiment in Europe, which will turn on the largest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider, on Sept 10th. There are some who say it will cause the end of the world, because of the potential to create "mini-black holes". Black holes are normally formed by the gravitational collapse of a massive star, but it is possible that the conditions at the time of the Big Bang could have created extremely small black holes. Steven Hawking postulated that such holes would evaporate by the emission of radiation, called "Hawking Radiation", a result of a virtual particle-anti particle pair being produced at the black hole's event horizon. Some physicists now believe that Hawking radiation may be a flawed concept and that a mini black hole created by the LHC would not evaporate, but could cause a cataclysmic disaster and swallow up the earth.

So .. just in case they are right, enjoy Kate's rap while you can.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Managers say the darndest things

There is a really useful website titled Bullshit Bingo that is a very good concentration aid during management meetings. The web page produces a five by five grid of randomly chosen meaningless management metaphors ( like "traction", "vertical market", "horizontal market", "hardball", and "leveraging core competence"). You listen out during the meeting and every time one of the phrases is used by someone, you cross it off. When you get a line of five together, you jump up and shout "Bullshit!!" (or not, if you want to keep your job!). It really improves your listening skills.

In a company I once worked for someone I knew actually got a line during a meeting, so it is possible. Other choice examples were when the CEO, in a 20 minute recorded telephone message to employees used the phrase "Moving Forward" a total of 39 times (someone was actually counting!). A couple of other hilarious comments were:

... this new product will really help us to move up the food chain of value-added ...


and my favourite:

The future is now.


If any readers have similar hilarious examples of the darndest things managers say, then please submit a comment.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

No Swimming

Canal Walk, Indianapolis, 27th Jan 2008.

On business in Indy in January, we had a weekend to kill. The folks at the office recommended we visit Chicago, but neither of the two of us, mad Englishmen that we were, fancied a round trip of seven hours in the car to see a city where we wouldn't know where to go. So we found in the hotel room a guide that said the Canal walk in Indianapolis is very beautiful, so we decided to give it a try. Alas, it had been drained for the winter, making the warning in this picture somewhat superfluous. Fancy diving into that!

I shall be out there again next week, and I am sure the canal walk will be beautiful, but I doubt if I'll get to see it, as I'll just be there during the week :-(

And here's the proof that I was really there! Such a lovely picture it might have been!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury on Gay relationships

From a letter from 2001 between the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams and Dr. Deborah Pitt, a psychiatrist and evangelical Christian:

"By the end of the 1980s I had definitely come to the conclusion that scripture was not dealing with the predicament of persons whom we should recognise as homosexual by nature. I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness."

Good for him!! I agree with the above 100%.

Apparently the Church of England is going to split on this issue, and some Conservative Christians say Williams's position is now "untenable".

Some Conservative Christians need to go back to the Bible and read Matthew 7:1-2.

Some Conservative Christians need to understand the truly horrific abominations that are perpetrated on innocent children, not by homosexuals, but mostly by close family members, and maybe they'd get a better perspective on what's really going on in the world, and not spend so much energy condemning people for an orientation they did not choose.

And if, dear reader, you want to know more about what I'm saying in the last paragraph, and you want to have that better perspective, and if, (most importantly) you have a strong stomach, then read about the horrific abuse that Sophie Andrews endured from her adopted father, in her book Scarred: How One Girl Triumphed Over Shocking Abuse and Self-harm

I am serious - you need a strong stomach, and also most likely a box of tissues to equip you for reading this book.

Continuing his Work

This was a poem I wrote about a year after my father died, in his memory. The image of the half-mown lawn was one I had long intended to write into a poem, but the recollection prompted by the incident at the end was the spark that got the poem written & thus a sad memory got sandwiched between two happy ones.

"Please, Daddy, can you mend my coach?"
Me. Aged five. At the airport. Clutching broken toy.
You, ever the patient father,
Tired from your business trip, complied.

Thirty years passed, and then you died,
Mowing the lawn. For three days I stared out of the window
At the mower's slanting swathe across the uncut grass,
Marking your last path.
Then started it up again, continuing your work.
Felt your last moments in the vibrations of the handle.
Knew your last conscious act;
To halt the mower and save your precious lawn.

Then yesterday, you came to me again,
Through my five-year-old's broken toy,
And for a few moments that spanned the gap of all those years,
I solemnly enacted the sacrament
Of mending a plastic ambulance.

Friday, 1 August 2008

INTP or INFP ? A poem reveals all!

Over at Willful Grace there is a posting about the Myers-Briggs personality profile. As Grace, who is an INFP points out, there are some good things about INFP's (like being very caring etc), and some things that really suck, like having a "subtle tragic motif" running through their lives.

Well, on reading about it, I went and took a Myers-Briggs test, and answered a lot of impertinent Yes/No type questions, and lo and behold, I also came out as an INFP! (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving).

I guess my "tragic motif" is my penchant for sad music as exemplified in these posts:

No easy fixes, but we can try
Funeral songs ( choosing a song for my own funeral?! How tragic is that ???)
Hunger for Seriousness

But I also seem to remember that I took an M-B test around 20 years ago, during a management course, and came out as INTP (T = "thinking"), reflecting my analytical, scientific, rational nature as opposed to the touchy-feely-liking-depressing-music-caring side.

Perhaps the explanation is in the thoughts I had when taking the questionnaire this time. Rather than straight

Yes No

as the options for answer, what I wanted was:

Yes Meh No

as for many of the questions I couldn't make a firm preference and reasoned it would depend on the situation.

So does the ambiguity between Thinking and Feeling mean that my personality is as follows:

Thinking ................. *Meh* ................. Feeling ?

(emphasis points to my position on the scale).

I don't think so. I care passionately about both sides - the rational scientist, and the feeling, caring person with an embedded minor key. It wasn't really a "I don't care" response, but a desire to push both buttons.

An exercise I once did in a creative writing workshop reveals that these two parts of me are in dynamic balance, and make me what I am. We were told first to draw ourselves "as a tree", trying to embody our character in the drawing. Then we had to write down "I am the tree, and I ..." and carry on writing a poem or piece of prose, that was inspired by the drawing. The tree I drew was quite bizarre (I'm not a good artist!) The left side was angular and geometric, and the right side was curving and wayward, symbolising one the one side, my scientific, rational nature, and on the other, my creative, and artistic nature. The poem followed quite easily from it. The exercise told me a lot about myself, and I was pretty comfortable with it. Here's the poem I wrote:

Tree Psalm

I am the tree
and I have logic engraved in my branches
Around me is evidence
that I assimilate;
making deductions,
forming ordered conclusions.

I am the tree
And my leaves are blobs
Slapped on by impressionists
On emotion's whim
Around me are patterns
Inciting dance
To enhance

I am the tree
and my bark is etched with parallel lines.
Around me is peace
in the perfection of symmetry
joy in the rightness
of orthogonality

I am the tree
and the waves of my roots
are strewn to the mood of the moment
free to explore
where logic loses itself

I am the tree
And when my diverse natures merge

When logic and love are one

I am the Creator.

... well, it's said that INFP's are supposed to be talented writers. Let the reader be the judge of that (only if your MB profile ends in a J).

But the thing that pleases me most about the poem was that I took it to a poetry writers group, whose leader was a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Despite all that, he didn't know the meaning of the word "Orthogonality". One up for us scientists!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Inspiration from 1964

Today we undertook a massive clearout of the garage and attic. The chaotic jumble of papers, books, toys and so forth was thoroughly sorted, some to keep for special memories, but many assigned for recycling.

My past life seemed to flash about me with fond and forgotten memories revived and relived once again in a random patchwork of reminiscence. Here was found my first ever Paddington Bear book, whose stories delighted me as a child.

Among my extensive university lecture notes was an essay I wrote on how to explain the particle-wave duality of Quantum Mechanics to a non-scientist. In it, I had tackled the problem of how we understand that light can be simultaneously a particle and a wave, by making an analogy with Christian Theology - that theologians too have the magnum mysterium of Christ being fully man and fully God at the same time. My crusty physics professor (Sir Brian Pippard, who was Cavendish professor of Physics at Cambridge) was not impressed, and wrote the following comment in the margin of my essay:

An attractive, but I think false, analogy. It is a peculiarly Medieval concept that suggests that the Order below reflects the Order above.

I can still hear Pippard's slightly high pitched, very academic voice as he read the comment out to me as I could not read his writing.

The first books that sparked my life-long interest in science were the How and Why Wonder books series, and this one on Dinosaurs was the first one I owned, bought for me by my parents when I was seven or eight years old for the princely sum of three shillings and six pence (17.5 p in today's money or around 35 cents).

Most of my schoolfriends had this book as well. The amazing facts about these extraordinary creatures that lived all those millions of years ago inspired all our playground fantasies, and role-playing games, which were filled with Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Brontosauruses, Allosauruses and so on. Endless fun was to be had!

However, for me the real treasure was to be found in a quote from another book in the series, the How and Why Wonder Book of Primitive Man.

One of the biggest issues facing the Christian church today is the endless and pointless battle between Science and Religion; with one side peopled by Young Earth Creationists who will tell you that the theory of evolution is a load of rubbish, and on the other side by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett, who argue that evolution leads inevitably to an atheistic viewpoint.

How refreshing, then, to read the following beautifully simply and inspiringly worded passage in this book, written in 1964 by a certain Donald Barr, who was Assistant Dean, School of Engineering, Columbia University, New York. In a section titled Do all people believe the theory of evolution? he writes:

When Darwin's books on evolution were printed a hundred years ago, many people said Darwin did not believe in God's plan, but in a horrible universe run by lucky accidents and greedy fighting. They said he was making man out to be nothing more than a brainy ape. But these people need not have worried. The theory of evolution says certain things happened. It does not say, and it could not say, why those things happened. If God made the world and runs the world, then evolution is God's plan. And it is a majestic and beautiful plan. With evolution, even accidents are part of the plan of life, and even the lowest creature is part of the family life. The theory of evolution does not say man is only a brainier kind of ape. It says that for two thousand million years living forms were tried and improved and tried and improved in preparation for the arrival of man as we know him upon the scene of life upon the earth.

There really doesn't have to be a war, does there?

Saturday, 26 July 2008

No easy fixes - but we can try

One thing that is deeply ingrained into me, which I can't explain, is the desire to reach out to those who are in pain or distress. It has been there from quite an early age - part of my make up, I suppose.

Last weekend, I heard this song, for the first time, sung by a woman with a beautiful voice, at a lunch party, and fell in love with it straight away. It shows how out of touch with contemporary culture I am that I was unaware it was a big hit for Coldplay in 2005; but came home and immediately found it on YouTube, then also found my daughter had it in her collection.

The words spoke directly to me as part of what I want to do. There aren't any easy fixes for people who are in pain, but that doesn't stop us wanting to try.

The song also made me feel sad, because of someone I know of, who is suffering as the result of a terrible injustice. I guess this post is dedicated to that person.

On the other hand, it's also the case that I've only recently discovered how to put links to YouTube videos on a blog, and I'm looking for an excuse to play with my new toy!

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Funeral Songs

A morbid discussion arose on one of the email lists I am subscribed to concerning suitable songs one would choose to have played at one's funeral.

My choice would be Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder.

The final verse seems to point to a transcendence of the world that is entirely an appropriate way to say goodbye to it.

For me, this is simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

(I have lost touch with the world)

Words by Friedrich Rückert
Music by Gustav Mahler,
Sung by Kathleen Ferrier

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
________________________________________ ___

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

.. and now for a complete contrast, though no less affecting, is the song my daughter Jess would choose for her funeral

Saturday, 12 July 2008

How faith in Jesus Christ resolves a fundamental paradox

There is an old conundrum often used to argue against the idea of an Omnipotent (capable of anything) God. It goes as follows:

"Can God make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it?"

A simple examination of the logical conundrum would lead to the conclusion that God cannot be omnipotent. If He CAN make such a stone, then He is incapable of lifting it by definition. If, however, he cannot make such a stone then that is also something He is incapable of doing. Therefore, God cannot be omnipotent - whichever way you look at it, there is something that God is incapable of doing. As the atheist writer Douglas Adams would have put it "So God disappears in a puff of logic".

The thought that has come to me recently is that this simple analysis doesn't apply to the Christian religion - and that the mystery of Incarnation (the Word became flesh and dwelt among us - John 1:14), offers a resolution to this paradox. The paradox would indeed be unanswerable for a God that lived forever distant from the Universe that He created. But the Christian message is that God became a part of His own creation; took on the form, and the frailties of a human being, and lived among us. This was a voluntary setting aside of his power and abilities - a human being cannot lift a rock that weighs more than a few hundred pounds. Of course, Jesus also performed miracles, but at the end, voluntarily laid down his life. Perhaps some expected him to bring matters to a head when faced with crucifixion; become an earthly King, and defeat the Romans, in some supernatural coup d'etat. And it would have been within his power to do so. But that was never the plan; it was to set aside his omnipotent power, and voluntarily become helpless in the face of a cruel and painful death.

And in the crucifixion, we also see the resolution of a similar paradox, which goes like this:

Is there anything an Omniscient (all-knowing) God cannot know?

One might pose the answer that a supposedly Omniscient being cannot know what it feels like NOT to know everything.

And again this is resolved in the person of Jesus Christ - God voluntarily laid aside the knowledge of everything, so that when, on the Cross, he cried out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46), he wasn't faking it - he felt exactly the sense of loss, confusion, abandonment, and brokenness that we all feel.

Only in this sense of feeling exactly what we, as limited, finite human beings feel, can we perceive of a God who truly stands alongside us in our suffering. And it is only because of this real experience of "not knowing" that God can truly be deemed Omniscient.

That is why the Christian God is the one whom I worship.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Here's an article I wrote for a local Church magazine (the consortium of Churches in Abingdon).

Dr. I.G.D. Strachan

This article represents my own opinion on this complex subject, arrived at after wrestling, as honestly as I could, with the issues involved. I hope that my views may not cause dismay for some people – but that the reader will be encouraged to explore these issues, and come thereby to a greater understanding of the marvellous creation in which we live.

Introductory thoughts

On the windows desktop of the computer I am using to write this article is a picture of one of the most awesomely beautiful sights in all creation, the Andromeda galaxy, which is the nearest neighbour to our own Milky Way. Its bright centre and swirling spiral arms are witness to mighty processes that have happened over aeons of time. Astronomers have estimated that the distance from us to this galaxy is of the order of fifteen million million million miles. It takes light around two and a half million years to reach us from Andromeda. So looking at the Andromeda galaxy gives us a window on the past – we do not see it as it is now, but as it was two and a half million years ago. The galaxy itself is so large that light takes around a hundred thousand years to cross from one side of it to the other.

What are the thoughts that come to me, as a Christian believer, when faced with such mind-boggling facts, revealed by science? They fill me with a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer scale and majesty of the Universe that God created. Furthermore they fill me with gratitude that the God who created such immensity also cares intimately about something so small and apparently insignificant as me. They bring to mind the words of the Psalmist:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3-4).

Young Earth Creationism

For a scientist and a Christian, this is a way of meditating on God’s works, leading to worship and praise of the Creator. Yet, surprisingly it seems that thoughts such as these can not easily be shared by increasing numbers of evangelical Christians. The problem lies in the idea that we see the galaxy as it was two and a half million years ago. Recent polls suggest that around 40% of Americans believe that God created the universe only a few thousand years ago.

This belief comes from an interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis as a literal historical account. Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) performed a detailed study of Biblical chronology, and concluded that the Creation took place in the year 4004 BC. Those who hold that this is the truth are called “Young Earth Creationists” (YECs).

The six-thousand year timescale comes into direct conflict with modern science, including Darwin’s theory of evolution, which requires millions of years for its processes to unfold. But it is not just evolution that requires these timescales. As we have seen, astronomy also implies vast ages, as does geology, and the observations made from radioactive dating of rocks.

YECs seek especially to attack the theory of evolution, which is blamed for the rise of atheism, because it contradicts a strictly literal interpretation of the Biblical account. However the long timescales were not dreamt up by scientists in order to fit in with the theory of evolution. The geologists of the early nineteenth century (many of whom were devout Christians), had come to the conclusion before Darwin that the earth had to be at least millions of years old (current estimates are that its age is around four and a half billion years). So the idea of an immense age of the earth is not due to Darwin or evolution, but comes from other areas of science.

Additionally, the idea that one should not interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally is not some modern invention, or compromise that we have to adopt because modern science says the earth is billions of years old. The early Christian father Origen (185-254 AD) writing about the Days of Creation, and the descriptions of the Garden of Eden, wrote the following:

I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history...

Origen, living in the third century AD had no scientific reason for believing that the earth was billions of years old. Yet it seemed to him obvious that the Genesis texts were figurative – in fact he didn’t think anyone would doubt it. Equally St. Augustine (354-430 AD) did not believe that the days of creation were 24 hour periods. Why is it, then, that in the 21st Century, so many people are insisting on a literal, rather than a figurative interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis?

I think that the advance of atheistic philosophy has a lot to do with it. Richard Dawkins’s recent book “The God Delusion” is an all-out attack against all forms of religion, whether moderate or extreme. He would like you to believe that the truth of evolution means that the bible is completely false, and that atheism follows inevitably from the acceptance of evolution. He is also known for the vehemence of his attacks and his scorn for religion, describing it in one place as "juvenile superstition". This kind of rhetoric, at which Dawkins excels, is bound to polarize opinions to opposite extremes.

YECs who describe themselves as “Creation Scientists” agree with Dawkins that if evolution is true then the Bible is completely false. They research into alternative ways to explain the long timescales indicated by mainstream science. They take as inviolate the idea that the timescale must fit in to the 6,000 year period from 4004 BC to the present, and attempt to make the science fit in with that. I have spent much time trying to assess the validity of the theories advanced by creation scientists, and have come to the conclusion that sadly, their ideas are not so much science as wishful-thinking. While I do not doubt the sincerity of these people, I fear greatly that impressionable laymen are going to be misled by this so-called science, and will later discover its flaws and have their faith shattered as a result. I know a few people to whom this has actually happened.

A recent example of the kind of ideas put forward by creation scientists is the R.A.T.E. project (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth). This was a $1.25 million study performed by the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) and other Creationist groups to attempt to explain why radioactive dating techniques show the earth to be billions of years old. The solution they have come up with is to propose periods of extremely rapid radioactive decay (one of these being day three in Genesis Chapter 1) which accounted for what should have taken billions of years.

There are two major problems with this proposed solution. The first is that there is no known way to accelerate the rate at which radioactive atoms decay. We can’t do it today, and there are no scientific mechanisms we can propose to explain how it could have happened. The second is that the effect of having billions of years worth of radioactive decay happening in a day is like having billions of nuclear weapons detonated at once. The R.A.T.E. scientists have themselves calculated that the heat generated would have vapourised the earth!

At a recent conference in Denver, presenting the results of the R.A.T.E. study, the speaker acknowledged these difficulties, and suggested that the problem was solved by “Divine Intervention”. But it seems to me that this is to make nonsense of trying to find a scientific explanation in the first place. We might just as well have said that the whole Creation process was a miracle from the start. The shortcomings in this reasoning are illustrated in a famous cartoon, depicting a blackboard with some abstruse mathematics, and a large gap in the middle containing the words “then a miracle occurs”. Invoking a miracle to explain bits you can’t describe scientifically is a dangerous strategy, and is known as a “God-of-the-gaps” argument; if scientists eventually come up with a naturalistic explanation, God gets squeezed out. God should not be relegated to a mere filler of the gaps in our knowledge. He is supreme and transcendent over all nature.

By contrast, the God indicated by the R.A.T.E. scientist’s explanation appears to be supremely deceptive. What we are being asked to accept is that God performed two miracles, which are not described in the bible – one in causing all the radioactive elements to decay in a rapid fashion, and another to take away all the heat. The only purpose of these miracles, it would seem, is to make the earth look like it is billions of years old, instead of thousands. Why would God do that?

This idea of “apparent age” is also not new. It was explored by author Philip Gosse, in a book titled “Omphalos” in 1857, who attempted to explain the fossil record by arguing that God created the world to look like it was in the middle of natural cycles. The word “Omphalos” means “navel” in Greek, and Gosse claimed that Adam, who had no mother, would nonetheless have been created with a navel, to look as if he had been born naturally. The author Charles Kingsley, a friend of Gosse, and practicing Christian, on being asked to review the book, wrote thus:

“… if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes God-the-Sometime-Deceiver. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in ... your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here ... I cannot ... believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind."

Intelligent Design

The “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement overlaps with YEC, but its proponents are not necessarily “Young Earth” in orientation – they often have no problems with immense timescales. Although their critics often describe them as "anti-evolutionists", it is perhaps fairer to say that they question evolution as an adequate explanation of all the complexity of life that we see around us, and propose that some of what we observe is better explained by the actions of an intelligent designer. It is indeed true that the computer-like code that exists in the DNA in every cell of every living thing is one of staggering complexity. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has observed: “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created”.

ID proponents argue that the DNA code, with its resemblance to computer code, implies the existence of a programmer (or “Designer”); they assert that in certain cases it is too complex to have occurred through the process of evolution. ID theorists make no pronouncements about the identity of the Designer – they have stated, for example, that it could be a sufficiently advanced alien life form. However, many of the prominent ID proponents are Christians who believe the identity of the Designer to be God.

A flagship example of the complexity of nature used by the ID movement is the “bacterial flagellum”. This is the whip-like tail that bacteria use to propel themselves through water. Amazingly, the drive mechanism functions exactly like a tiny electric motor, with all the same components present as with a real electric motor (the diagram is a stylized representation illustrating the presence of all these components). It is easy, on seeing such a marvel to proclaim that this is evidence of a Designer. However, it is dangerous to propose a Designer just because we don’t know how such a thing could have evolved. This, too, is a “god-of-the-gaps” argument.

The modern ID movement has updated the old “watchmaker” argument of William Paley (1743-1805) – which initially impressed Darwin himself, until he came up with the theory of evolution. Paley argued that if you should stumble upon a watch in the middle of a field, you might reasonably suppose, given its intricate mechanisms, that the watch had been deliberately designed by someone. By analogy, certain intricate contrivances found in nature, such as the eye, are also deemed to imply the existence of a Designer who created it all.

It seems to me there is a serious flaw in this argument right from the start. It is indeed quite reasonable to infer the existence of a watchmaker when you come upon a watch, because you already know that watchmakers exist, and so the most likely explanation of the watch is that there is a watchmaker.

What if the observer doesn't know that watchmakers exist? Science fiction writers often imagine forms of life that are so different to our own that we might have difficulty in recognizing it as such, apart from its complexity. In “Star Trek” when faced with an amorphous pulsating blob, Dr. McCoy would say “Its life, Jim, but not as we know it!” Suppose such weird alien creatures landed on our earth in the middle of a desert and saw a watch, a mechanism as alien to them as they are to us. I think it is quite possible that they would mistake the watch for a life form, having no idea as to its purpose. To put it another way, watchmakers are people whom we can see, but as the Bible says "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). God reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ, not through our current lack of knowledge of how the bacterial flagellum might have evolved.

A second major problem for me with the design argument is that it seems to be bad theology. The Bible tells us that Christ is supreme, at the centre of everything. He is before all things and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). But ID singles out special instances that evolution supposedly cannot explain – postulating in its place a cosmic programmer who, at certain times, installed a new program into nature as if it were a computer. Other, simpler objects in nature are deemed not to require this special explanation. But the Colossians passage indicates that God is the creator and sustainer of everything whether simple or complex. It tells us that God is intimately involved in the unfolding of the natural laws. This view is also known as “Theistic Evolution”, and it is the view to which I subscribe. It harmonizes with what we read in Genesis Chapter 1, where it says “Let the land produce vegetation …. And the land produced vegetation”. (Genesis 1:11,12). God’s creative action is to endow nature with the capability of bringing forth life.


Much of this debate has to do with well-meaning Christians trying to defend God against the relentless advance of atheism, but I would like to draw the reader’s attention to something much better - the incredible sense of wonder and awe we get from embracing without fear what science tells us. Darwin himself sensed this wonder, and wrote thus in the final sentence of “Origin of Species”:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

A little known fact about the great composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams is that his great-uncle was none other than Charles Darwin. The following story appears in “The Book of Musical Anecdotes”, which serves as a way of concluding this discussion:

There was a great kerfuffle among the [Vaughan-Williams] family - like everywhere else - when The Origin of Species was published, and Ralph, when he was about seven, asked his mother about it. His mother was extremely sensible. She said, "The Bible tells us that God made the world in six days. Great-uncle Charles thinks it took rather longer. But we needn't worry - it is equally wonderful either way."

Yes, indeed, it is wonderful. We should be profoundly grateful that we can say, along with the Psalmist “I meditate on all your works, and consider what your hands have done” (Psalm 143:5), and that science has opened up these astonishing wonders to us.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Babiy Yar

I'm a bit of a fan of Shostakovich's music ( see Hunger for Seriousness ). Well, a BIG fan if I'm honest, almost to the point of obsession! Shostakovich's 13th Symphony contains a setting to music of a famous poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, called "Babiy Yar". It is a vehement protest against anti-semitism in the USSR, and its final two lines speak directly to me in my current explorations of the issue of gay Christians and the attitude of the church towards them (see Outing myself as a Straight gay sympathizer).

Since the "outing" post, I've had some reasonably civilised discussions on a Christian email list I'm subscribed to, along with some lamentable expressions of bigotry. I've been accused of being a "liberal in terms of sexual ethics", and asked if I approve of a heterosexual leaving his wife for another woman ( of course not! Duh!). For the record, I consider myself to be an evangelical.

But that "liberal" label that someone attempted to pin on me really stung, and put me in mind of the last two lines of Yevtushenko's poem, which says something like:

There is no Jewish blood in my veins, but I feel the hatred of the anti-semites
As if I were a Jew. That is why I am a true Russian!

Yevtushenko's words were a self-fulfilling prophecy. A few days later some thugs took a key to t his car, and scrawled the word "Yid" across his bonnet. To add insult to injury the militia made him have the car towed away, on the grounds that an offensive word was writtin on the bonnet.

Shostakovich read the poem and set it to music in the first movement of his 13th Symphony. During rehearsals, the bass soloist, a loyal communist party member, said to the composer "Why have you written this symphony? There is no anti-semitism in the Soviet Union". To which Shostakovich became very agitated and said "There is, there is antisemitism in the Soviet Union; it is a shameful thing, and we must shout about it from the rooftops". (The symphony was banned by the authorities after one performance).

And in exactly the same sense, when I see the sort of hate language (far worse than I've received) that is directed against gays by right-wing evangelicals, I would say:

I've never been attracted to another man; but I feel the bigotry of Christian homophobics as if I were queer myself. That's part of being a Christian for me.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Geek Joke

The fact this appeals to me goes to show what a sad person I really am ...

Friday, 2 May 2008

Trip to Venice

Some snaps with my new toy (a Nikon D40 Digital SLR camera - a sort-of 50th birthday present from my wife who gave me permission to buy it!!)

My Mother always wanted to see Venice, and treated the family to a trip there to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Sadly we got of to a bad start when our flight got cancelled from Gatwick, after snow predictably brought Britain to a standstill! This was the view from the front of the Hotel near Gatwick. Next morning, at 4am we were setting off from another hotel near Gatwick having queued for several hours to get rebooked on a flight to Verona at 0620am.

A view from the top of the Bell Tower in St. Mark's Square. It looks rather like an abstract painting, with the artistically jumbled grid of tightly-packed buildings.

A magical night time walk

And.. inevitably, from a Gondola ride.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Outing myself as a straight gay sympathizer

OK. Having thought about it and wrestled with it for a long time, the time has come to make a stand. Guess it's pretty cowardly to put it on a blog that practically no people read, but one has to make a start somewhere.

Let's get "straight" to the point. I think it's time evangelical Christians took a long hard think about their attitude towards gays. There are a range of attitudes prevalent, and while I think there is some evidence of evangelicals acting in a compassionate manner, I think few people take it far enough.

There is the out-and-out homophobia element. The kind of person that says homosexuality is "disgusting". Yes, in some ways this is understandable - there is a natural revulsion that people feel for certain physical acts, sure. But people who think that way should really try to remember what they felt when they first found out about sex. When you're very young and you first find out about what your parents did to make you, your reaction is one of disgust (well, mine was, anyway, I mean at first it seems pretty gross, doesn't it?) Until you get the same feelings yourself, it is hard to imagine how such an act could be the beautiful thing that it is.

Then there's the element that says it's a sin but we must be compassionate towards homosexuals. Because it is believed by these people that homosexual acts are a sin, then gay couples are encouraged to split up, and are encouraged to seek spiritual help, support, guidance, prayer for "healing" and so forth. Much of this is well-meaning, of course, but flies in the face of evidence.

The plain evidence we have to face is that homosexuality isn't something people choose; it's a given. It is not hard to find on the web testimonies of gay Christians who desperately didn't want to be gay - who tried with the greatest earnestness to seek healing, to change their orientation. In the overwhelming majority of cases it doesn't work at all, however much they want it to.

So, as a Christian who believes in healing, one has to ask the question "So why doesn't God heal gays who earnestly seek healing?". The only logical answer I can come up with to this is simply that they don't need healing.

Well, in fact they do need healing, but not in the way you might think. To be gay and unable to accept that you are gay is to be at war with yourself - perhaps it even implies that you have an inbuilt homophobia that is preventing you from accepting yourself for the person you are. Such people often descend into self-loathing, depression, and suicide attempts. This is the seriousness of the situation we face. The attitude of well-meaning evangelical Christians is a direct cause of depression and suicide. Evangelicals have to ask themselves - are we really so sure we're right on this? What if loving gay relationships are in fact not sinful?

Ah, but wait a minute, you are bound to be saying; what about all those troubling passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality? A notorious one is found in Leviticus, which says "A man shall not lie down with a man as with a woman - that is detestable". Surely you can't argue with that? Well .. not as it stands of course; but what about the context, the text, and the culture of the time? Again, it's not hard to find expositions of these on the web. It appears from these, that the Leviticus passage may well have been referring to cult temple worship, and in particular to the use of male prostitutes as a part of the worship of pagan Gods.

Another notorious passages is in Romans Ch 1. Again, Paul appears to be condemning homosexuality as "perversion". But how about reading it more carefully in context? What is being described is the general slide into debauched behaviour that results from idolatory (v25). It talks about exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones. It seems clear from this that the indecent acts described were being committed by people who were naturally heterosexual, but tried out homosexual acts for kicks. But gay people I've spoken to never had that natural feeling of attraction to the opposite sex. It always felt unnatural for them, and the natural attraction they had was for the same sex. The Romans passage doesn't seem to apply to them.

Now, of course you might say I got this from a gay commentator, and you might want to comment "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?". In actual fact, I got it from a detailed and scholarly analysis from a "straight" evangelical. To read more see George Hooper's book "Reluctant Journey - a pligrimmage of faith from homophobia to Christian love" It's available in its entirety for free on the web, and should be required reading for evangelicals.

So that's it. I've "outed" myself. I don't think we should be trying to get homosexuals to change their orientation, but we should welcome them as part of the body of Christ, and affirm their sexuality. In a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul shows how all parts of the body are important - the eye should not say to the hand "I don't need you!".

As I said at the start, this is a pretty timid beginning, writing all this on a blog that practically no-one reads; but just in case you are reading this, and you happen to be gay, I would say to you "We do need you - you are a part of the body of Christ, a part that is suffering, and because of that, we all suffer with you ( 1 Cor 12:26).