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Its been a busy 18 months or so, and I am no longer writing about science, really. Photography has taked over to a large extent, as alluded to by a previous post, fuelled by my own personal journey. So if you want to follow that, my other blog, “Sublimation”, is the place to go. I may return here from time to time though because I am never far away from science, science communication, and rational things in general.
Yours in rational thought,
Sometimes, just every now and then, you need a good shot of reality to return your mind to what is real, away from the stuff of mere thought, navel-gazing and “controversy”.
I’ve been in hospital since Sunday afternoon. It’s now Wednesday night, and I’ll be going home tomorrow. Pneumonia put me in here, via the emergency department. Pneumonia is quite a nasty condition indeed, filling parts of your lungs with fluid, causing intense pain and reducing lung capacity, just like someone squeezing your lungs to stop each breath. It even has an appreciable mortality rate; fortunately I appear to have dodged that bullet.
Between pain, restlessness, incessant (appreciated) attention from doctors and nurses, and being confined in isolation in case you have one of the very nasty ‘superbugs’ going round, this is an altogether unpleasant experience. I don’t recommend it at all. Zero stars.
One effect, I found, of hospitalization for pneumonia, is great difficulty in appreciating anything from anyone else’s point of view. It turned me into a surly, irritable bore. Even my wife left a couple of times because she could see clearly that I wasn’t getting much out of her presence, and that it was only upsetting her to see me this way. Now, those who know me might ask, “so, what’s changed?” Well, excuse me, I say, I am at least capable of sympathy and being nice and stuff. This kind of condition seems to highlight the worst in me!
Today, however, I am much improved. I am now capable of fully articulating my grievances. However, I don’t have many and those that I have (and did articulate, to the chagrin of my wife) are quite petty. They moved me into a shared room for my last night. Annoying, but it was so that someone in the same position that I was in three days ago could use it. Really, why be upset with that?
More than that, since I am now out of isolation, I was able to take my book into the hospital courtyard to read. In the fresh air! That was fantastic in itself: no beeping machines, no noises from other patients and no general activity and “goings on”. A little bit of peace in the middle of one of Perth’s busiest public hospitals.
As I sat there, I realized that the door to the courtyard is large enough and the pathways in the courtyard wide enough to allow a hospital bed to be wheeled out there. Thinking about that, I wondered, what type of patient would be wheeled outside on their bed? It occurred to me that it could be someone who wasn’t going to see the “real world” outside the hospital again.
There are trees and flowers in the courtyard. The courtyard garden would not win any awards, however, someone looks after this garden. A rectangle of sky above the courtyard provides glimpses of the weather, today revealing cold wind and rain; pretty rare in Perth recently. Even the ordinary looking shrubs and flowers, set against the drab architecture of this public hospital have a certain beauty. It occurred to me, that if this little shrubbery with its intermittent flowers were to be my final contact with nature, I wouldn’t mind. The sweeping vistas of Perth’s beaches would not be so sweeping in that state anyway; and the salty air would probably only irritate one’s condition. So, to hold a few leaves, to breath the fresh air and to watch the odd cloud pass by would be enough: Far better than to stare listlessly into a partially flickering fluorescent light for hours and hours; surely and sadly the fate of so many.
I contemplated those inside who are far more unwell; who weren’t able to wander out into the garden. Really, I am fortunate, and the marvel that is medical science has returned me almost to normal within three days of being admitted into the emergency department. Even as I type this, a man nearby is about to be seen by an Oncologist, which really means only one thing. He is not a well man either, and just telephoned a friend to say he wont be at the football match this weekend. He was offering his ticket. Last night, we had a code blue in my ward (code blue being a medical emergency with a patient, like for instance cardiac arrest). If I’m not mistaken, inconsolable tears followed from a woman I shall never meet.
Wonderful and horrible things take place in hospitals, it really depends on what ward you are in at a given time. In the middle are the majority of people like me who, in a fog of self-pity brought on by middle-of-the-road medical conditions, are awful to the very people trying to help. I regret it, but it is hard to imagine being different. Hopefully I won’t need to test it. In the end, this remains yet another tribute to the work of the Orderlies, Cleaners, Meals staff, Nurses, Technicians, Doctors, Administrators, and the Gardeners (who I imagine are too-easily forgotten) that make up the lifeblood of a hospital. And a further tribute to the decades of medical research that goes behind what made my recovery so speedy. I thank all the staff of the Sir Charles Gairdiner Hospital in Perth. Particularly, I thank the fabulous people who attended me in Emergency and those who looked after me here in Ward G54: I think you’ve fixed me!
One final thing: Next time you’re in your garden looking at an old shrub and thinking about replacing it with a slicker, trendier model, consider how important that very plant could be to a different person in different circumstances.
A little embarrassing to share one’s own poetry, but as I am about to move back into minerals exploration, this seemed appropriate. I wrote this the last time I did fly-in, fly-out exploration; something I am unlikely ever to do again.It’s not all that good, I’ll warn you!
Weary site, weary home
Drilling, drilling, drilling on.
Catch a sulphide, cast it out.
See a speck, move about.
Move on now, more to do.
Live the dream, spirits high.
There’s no disappointment; why?
So now to execute the plan.
See the rods go down, turn,
And the metres burn, burn.
A budget tried; the geo lied,
There’s more in the assay,
Well that’s what they say.
And then, while much is had,
Back at home, things are sad,
The other half is away,
And it seems that he’ll stay.
The results come in, a hopeful grin.
Much is forgotten,
As we drill what’s rotten.
Sun setting, a forlorn pit,
As noone thinks to ask,
What will become of it?
Wallowing a weary task.
Mast at angle,
The spoils aren’t in line.
And so the call is come,
The metres are all done.
The Geo rests his head,
Will he lie straight in bed?
Cat flap opens in empty home,
As the wife walks lonely in,
The food bowl empty, quiet moan,
Reward a forgotten sin.
See there, in the freedom bird,
Novel resting in his hand.
His situation is absurd,
He resolves to make a stand.
A stranger to no longer be
In a house of his own.
To only recently see,
So many times lost, groan.
Reconciled, together again,
Weeks lost; catch up required.
There at heart shall his home remain,
What exploration inspired.
Wait! A new way may be found,
Heart and home in one place.
His feet firmly on the ground.
But results come, stealing space.
Cycle, cycle, cycle again,
Flights leave off, and hopes are lost.
Mike Robinson, July 2009
This blog is mostly about science, and about how people understand science, and hopefully it also attempts to explain some science from time to time. I try to keep atheist tirades out of it, because that is not the purpose of this blog. However, because the way people think is central to their understanding of science, and because religious thinking can have an impact on the way science is viewed, I consider it a rationally appropriate side-topic and will venture there from time to time.
In my haste and sleepiness at the time, I missed an argument in the comments, by Daniel, on my last post. I don’t mean to single Daniel out for this, however he made the comment and in the interests of furthering the debate, I’m reposting it for discussion. Isn’t the internet and the world-wide-web wonderful! Daniel wrote:
Medicine, planes, and cars do not oppose the knowledge of God, and neither does science. People do.
At first this seemed quite unremarkable to me. After all, no one was suggesting that other species oppose the knowledge of God. But then I noticed a classic misstep in the understanding of science: that science is a thing that exists apart from people. It is quite common, I think, for people to mistake the products of science for science itself. Science is a methodology; a set of tools, techniques and ways of thinking that allow a rational exploration of the world about us in the quest for knowledge. It has also helped us create some nifty devices and tricks, like planes and medicine.
Science is most definitely a creation of humans and human minds. The products of science, like medicine and automobiles, are not science themselves. The same can be said for “facts” about the world. That cheetahs eat gazelles on the African plains is not science. However, science has helped us understand the remarkable evolutionary arms race that has resulted in some of the fastest land animals that have ever existed.
So, when Daniel says that people oppose the knowledge of God, and that science doesn’t, he makes what is, to a large degree, a nonsensical argument. Science is created by people. If science develops explanations for things that do not require a God or Gods, then by implication, people have opposed the knowledge of God. The very same people who “oppose the knowledge of God” in Daniel’s argument may also substitute that knowledge with their own, scientific, explanations. Science and people are intimately intertwined. Indeed, inseparable. Likewise, religion and people.
To me, in this lies the fundamental problem with ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Magesteria” which holds that science and religion are concerned with such different things that they do not and should not step into each others territory. The fact is that they do, and they both exist in people’s minds. Sometimes in the same mind. They both make claims about the way the world is, and both provide evidence, in different forms. Assessing the quality of that evidence is precisely the kind of task at which science has proven itself so adept. I, and many others, would hold that religion has done a pretty poor job at providing evidence for its claims about the way the world is, whereas science, in as much as it does give to us, has been pretty good.
Yet, there may be things that science helps us little in. It may tell us what varieties of moral system there are and why we have a moral system in the first place (hot research and debate here), but it science may still never actually tell us how to behave. For that we must make choices, decisions based on what we know. That is a property of our minds that is poorly understood, though we have reason to believe that it is one of the things that makes us unique. Our remarkable brains gave us science, and they also give us enough ‘free will’ to oppose science, even make choices that defy evolution. That does not mean that our brains didn’t get like this through evolution.
There is one more position to hold, one that is still scientific. That is to accept that there are things that we don’t know. Richard Dawkins asks, in a famous TED talk,
Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp? Are there things about the universe that are, in principle, ungraspable?
These are important questions, and one cannot help but think that the only way forward is to apply the best tools of rational inquiry we have to the task, in the search for answers. The best tool we have is science. Lets get to work!
You may detect an antipodean flavour in this issue, with some excellent work included from Australia! My hope is that Scientia is a springboard for people to read about research and to read scientific writing by real scientists who (generally) are not paid by anyone to write what they write. Consider this as science “from the horse’s mouth”.
As always, science bloggers are keen for commentary and review of their work, especially if they are writing about original research. This kind of peer-review gives science blogging its power and maintains its integrity. You really can get your fill of juicy science here.
Scientia Pro Publica relies on YOU, so be sure to submit your blog posts, or the best of others’ here. Future editions need hosts, and we need them EVERY WEEK now. The schedule is here. Also, Scientia has a Twitter account, and there is even one for all science, environment and medical blog carnivals here! Read the rest of this entry »
When I was a child, I had what some might describe as an unhealthy obsession with TV documentaries about the world and wildlife. My tastes were not particularly discriminating, I would watch shows with a conservation theme, then enjoy a fishing show (I used to fish a lot with my Dad). But I loved watching shows that presented animals in their natural environment, and that gave us that little bit more knowledge about the world around us (one such series is actually called “The world around us”). I lapped up shows by the likes of David Attenborough and Ben Cropp.
Having exhausted what was on TV, I convinced my parents to take me to the video shop to get more. There I first discovered Malcolm Douglas; although he was already one of the highest rating documentary makers in Australian history. This khaki-clad adventurer would leap around the top half of our continent, handling snakes, chasing lizards, helping to catch and relocate troublesome crocodiles. He’d get bogged in his 4WD, then get out again competently (if a little muddy). The end of the day would be celebrated with a lesson on how to survive and flourish in the bush. Through Douglas’ lens I got to see parts of my country that I’d not seen before, and saw the behaviour of strange and dangerous creatures in their natural habitat. I was particularly impressed with his gentle skill with the animals he showed. As with his peers (though those like Douglas have few) he instilled in me a deep curiosity in the natural world, and more than that, a desire to learn more and pass it on to others. Read the rest of this entry »
In the coming month I will be producing a short film profile of Gary Cass, a scientific researcher in the soil science/agriculture section of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia where I am studying a Masters in Science Communication.
He is famous for the Red Wine Dress. He used to work in a vineyard and he noticed a thin film of slime that developed on red wine when Acetobacter infected it and turned it to vinegar (a wine-maker’s worst nightmare). Being an artistic person, he wondered whether it would be useful as a fabric. The film was in fact threads of nanofibre-scale cellulose that is the ‘poo’ of the bacteria. So he got together with an artist and developed the world’s first “Red Wine Dress”. As creative as that was, what he’s realised is that the same cellulose fabric is potentially useful in other applications. He’s now involved in further research into these materials.
The great thing is that all you need is wine, sugar and the bacteria to produce it. It can even be used to produce biofuels. In other words, we could have a multi-use biofuel technology – wine, fabric and fuel all from the one crop. It’s far more land efficient than sugar cane for instance. The spooky part is what a colleague of his is doing in the States – he’s taken gene’s from the Acetobacter and put them in cyanobacteria, so now these little bugs photosynthesise to produce the same cellulose. All they need is water, sunshine and carbon dioxide!
I spoke to him yesterday and he is passionate about creativity in science. One of the things he does is teaching at a school here, Shenton College. It’s a program he developed where he gets the kids (year 11s) to learn earth history, biology and genetics using artistic methods. So for instance, one kid coded a musical score from his basic DNA sequence. Another group of girls put the process of abiogenesis to dance! The reaction has been very positive and he’s now getting international attention for his approach. He thinks that creativity is an essential part of scientific progress (really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, that, but it does challenge traditional ideas) and that for too long science education has stifled that. Art is a natural medium to reintroduce it, and the strong boundary between art and science has been unnecessarily created. He struggles somewhat with the question of whether he’s an artist or a scientist! He did agree however, that really it’s depends on the work he’s doing – when testing hypotheses, he’s a scientist, when developing creative ideas, he’s more of an artist.
My film will be a profile of him with a focus on the Shenton college program, with some background about the red wine dress.
A few links about him:
and here’s a little film about an exhibition with him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-F2RD1KZT4
his website: http://bioalloy.org/o/ and particularly the dresses: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/micro-be.html and the evolution pages: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/bioalloyevolution.html
We live in a world of signs. A life surrounded by instructions and rules with which we must comply. Sometimes we struggle to know whether to stop, go, reduce speed or keep left. Sometimes we are asked to do several of these things at once. Occasionally, we are struck with a sense of control, that we are being led down a path in life that is not fully chosen. At other times, we realise that we choose paths in response to an external, carefully built up set of social norms that make us behave in acceptable ways. Old items make way for the new, despite both having the same basic function. Our worldview colours our choices, highlights the important things. We act, we deny, we reach terrible states of cognitive dissonance, we choose. At all times we move from one moment to the next, one upgrade to another, never stopping, living our lives in the moment, one eye on the future, beholden to the past.
North western Australia. A marsh landscape. A place to be filled and developed. It is hard to describe the feelings I had here. Best put, I felt a sense of impending loss. A creek flows through the marshes and the fish and kangaroos go about their business. The hum of nature is barely perceptable. One day, this will be filled with sand and a giant industrial facility will take it’s place. It will never look like this again. Progress, progress, progress. Unavoidable. How then to reconcile what’s lost? I am still to decide.
Ahh, the national day. A time to have a day off, relax, have a barbie, do whatever. Maybe enjoy how lucky you are to be living in a prosperous country on a warm summers day. The cricket on telly, a few beers, great stuff. Back to work the next day feeling a little seedy, but ready finally for another year.
Well, that’s how I remember it, “back in the day”. I don’t remember cars festooned with the flag and stickers with “Love it or leave” written on them. That wasn’t part of Australia Day. In fact, it has always been a rather awkward public holiday – one that you just enjoy without having to think hard about anything. Which makes it different from ANZAC day, which commemorates a tragic episode in our history where to some extent, the nation called Australia was “born”. Read the rest of this entry »
I am hardly the first person to examine the interview with Richard Dawkins and come out a little surprised. It has had a small rash of internet discussion, but being an Australian interview, has not yet captured the crazy creationist ire. Mostly it appears that neither Dawkins nor Denton did enough research on each other. This would have been an easier task for Denton than Dawkins given the quantity of material out there on Dawkins’ views and indeed his life. Denton is less famous outside Australia and has a career in journalism and TV making him perhaps more adept at only letting out what he wants. Either way, as one person said to me, Dawkins looked at Denton as though Denton was from Mars at some points throughout the interview. Denton’s style is usually to try and wrong-foot interviewees into revealing more about themselves by asking old-hat questions in unexpected ways. He triangulates on people, and it usually works, making him one of the best interviewers I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, when faced with a person who is professedly largely ignorant on topics outside his own field, this tactic fails. This is what has happened with Dawkins’ interview. A very straight bat to Denton is a good form of defensive play. In fact I had never seen that weakness until this interview.
Dawkins has been accused variously of being ivory-tower-dwelling, arrogant, pompous, strident (one he is particularly fond of) and narrow minded. However, this interview made Dawkins look humble when he explained that he doesn’t think that people should be interested in him, but that he does want to contribute his scientific knowledge to the world. His ideas about the value of truth and evidence I think were profound in the sense that rarely do people talk about it like that – the distinction between his views about life on other worlds versus the tooth fairy (or god) were very interesting. Perhaps he is right about the influence of fairy tales on children to prime them for religion. At no point did he distinguish himself from anyone else or make himself seem superior to others. Which is interesting considering that is precisely the sort of accusation frequently levelled at him. I think he did a good job of elucidating the difference between “belief” and “faith” and even distinguishing between religious faith and the kind of “faith” a scientist has in another scientist.
No doubt those who don’t like Dawkins will hold that up as an example of a boring, nerdy man who wants to take Christmas and tooth fairies away from children. Which is a shame since that is not what he said at all… And remember that Douglas Adams regarded him as a close friend, so he cannot possibly be humourless!
People seem incapable of grasping a central point to the philosophy of Dawkins and co. That is that there are seemingly infinite sources of wonder in the real world. There are new and exciting things to discover, and well worn paths to hold dear. There is little harm to be done in exploration, as long as a proper ethic is taken to the task. Not from god do we get to an ethics, but from analysis and reflection on life and its interrelationships. What is not known may never be known, but we do not yet know that! Wonder, beauty, love, happiness, suffering, these are all real things in the real world that do not require a heavenly explanation to make them worthy of experience. The methods of science have revealed to us much of which we would otherwise be ignorant. It is an ignorance that carries no bliss.
Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best, as he penned these words, a man no longer accepting faith, seeing instead a wonderful connection between natural processes over geological time and the diversity and beauty of life on earth:
“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.”