Jim Al-Khalili’s Paradox at the Royal Institution

ParadoxJim Al-Khalili’s latest book is Paradox: the nine greatest enigmas in science, and he gave a talk based upon it at the Royal Institution this evening.

Probably the most well-known scientific paradox is that of Schrodinger’s Cat, where those who adhere to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics would say that the hapless pussy is both dead and alive until the box in which it is enclosed is opened. This is the sort of perceived paradox which is only paradoxical until the underlying science is properly understood – in this case, the uncertainty seen in the quantum world decoheres when it is scaled up to the scale of the world we see (or alternatively, the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, as originated by Hugh Everett (father of Mark Oliver Everett, ‘E’ of Eels) would posit a branching into an alternate universe within the multiverse).

Al-Khalili dismissed rather rapidly the logical paradoxes such as ‘This statement is a lie’ as he finds them boring, and there’s not much you can say about them really, unless you’re a logician. I did do a course in mathematical logic many years ago and it was extremely boring – my best result was logically proving that all politicians are crocodiles, although I can’t now remember how I came to that conclusion.

The talk began properly, as does the book, with some apparent paradoxes from probability theory. Probability is often counter-intuitive, and difficult to grasp even when it’s explained well (several years ago there was an article in New Scientist which attempted to explain probability in some depth, but I was floundering by about half way through; there was a more understandable In Our Time on the subject in 2008). So we had a swift trip into the Monty Hall or Game Show Paradox; my favourite paradox of this type is the Birthday Paradox, which gets an explanation in the book.

We were shown how many of the historical so-called paradoxes were resolved as knowledge advanced (as an aside there’s an interesting article on the rate of change of knowledge in last week’s New Scientist): Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise, Olbers’ Paradox (first resolved by an unlikely person), and Maxwell and Laplace’s Demons.

The current major outstanding scientific puzzles such as whether we have free will, can a machine ever be conscious, why is there more matter than antimatter, what is dark matter made of, what is dark energy, and what was there before the Big Bang, tend to be just questions rather than paradoxes, although Laplace’s Demon has a direct bearing on the first of these.

The talk was rounded off with Fermi’s Paradox – where are all the aliens? This seemingly trivial question has deeper ramifications, not least regarding the anthropic principle, and subsequently the idea of a multiverse.

Jim Al-Khalili is always eminently listenable to, and although this sell-out lecture at the Royal Institution was quite light, and covered what, to me, were subjects I have previously heard or read in much greater depth, paradoxically I found the talk far too short.

I think the book’s an excellent introduction to the various subjects covered, although the chapters are a somewhat disparate bunch, the fact that they are (or were) paradoxes being the only common ground. A ‘further reading’ list wouldn’t have come amiss either.

His book Quantum: a guide for the perplexed is still, in my mind, his best book. Although the perplexity is deeper by the end of the book.

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Brompton Cemetery and Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

What have the following got in common? GoldenEye, Stormbreaker, and Johnny English; the source of Beatrix Potter’s characters’ names; a purported time machine using ancient Egyptian technology; Emmeline Pankhurst, Brian Glover, John Wisden, Bernard Levin, Samuel Cunard, G A Henty, Samuel Smiles, George Borrow, and Samuel Leigh Sotheby.

Well, I spent some time pondering my mortality yesterday, wandering round Brompton Cemetery, rather overgrown (but in a nice way), with its crumbling mausolea and beheaded monuments. No wonder it’s been featured in a number of films.

The walk from Fulham Broadway underground station is along a typical London street until Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge looms into view, a rather ugly example of modern architecture. Immediately after this there’s a bridge over the railway line linking Clapham and Willesden Junctions, built over the route of the rather short-lived Kensington Canal, and then the south gates to the cemetery, which covers 16.5 ha.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the population of London was increasing at a vast rate, and the old churchyards were full to (literally) overflowing, and so a series of garden cemeteries were built beyond what were then the edges of the city, Highgate being another famous example. Brompton was designed by Benjamin Baud and consecrated in 1840.central avenue

The layout was designed to resemble a cathedral, with a long central avenue representing the nave, and the chapel the altar. There are two colonnades, one with a bell-tower (the other was never built due to financial restraints), and a great circle of colonnades over catacombs supposedly inspired by St Peter’s piazza in Rome.chapel

colonnade and chapel

There was also a catacomb along the entire west edge of the cemetery with a promenade on top affording views across the canal to the countryside beyond. Most of this was removed when the view changed to the railway with Fulham beyond. Little of Fulham is now visible as Stamford Bridge looms above the boundary.

in the catacomb

As the crisis of corpses worsened there was a variety of hurried legislation which saw Brompton Cemetery nationalised in 1852; it remains the only Crown Cemetery, now administered by the Royal Parks Agency. There is a Friends organisation which among other things raises funds and organises tours.graves

The list of people at the beginning are some of the more well-known of the interred, apparently if you search hard enough (there are in the order of 35,000 monuments) you can find many of Potter’s characters’ names (she lived nearby), and there is a rather tenuous explanation for the time machine – an Egyptian-style mausoleum for which there are no plans lodged, no key to the door, and another monument nearby which has Anubis (representing a soul out of time) sitting on what might be a representation of, and staring at, the mausoleum. There is, of course, a very inventive back-story to this, including Egyptian papyri and a conspiracy theory involving secret plans and murder. And possibly watching Stargate too often.

The cemetery has a large number of listed structures, some of which have been restored, but there’s obviously a lack of funds as many are in a sad and dilapidated state, the one below is better than many.mausoleum

One headstone in particular was particularly moving, ‘In memory of seven of the children of Henry and Lucy Cundell’: Lucy (1843), Patrick (1846), George (April 1848), Henry (December 1848), Eleanor (February 1849), Eva (1864) and Henrietta (1874).the Cundell childrenHenry Pettitt awaiting the invention of the telephone

I left the cemetery by the Main (north) Gate onto an Old Brompton Road which had absolutely no vehicular traffic on it whatsoever, and was almost deserted apart from a few people dressed in those purply Olympic clothes either standing around or sitting on the pavement, and at the junction at the end of the road a couple of people in high-vis jackets stopping traffic from driving down the road as it’s an Olympic VIP route.

Having spent rather longer than I had meant in the cemetery there was only just time to get to my intended goal, the National Gallery for a quick look at the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, the stars of which are obviously the paintings by Titian, Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon, although I wish he had been better at getting heads to scale with the bodies – some are quite tiny (but I don’t suppose Philip II bothered to look at the heads very often).

The new works of art on offer suffered from the juxtaposition with the three Titians, tending to look a little insubstantial, they were certainly rather forgettable. The Choreographic Room, with a film of the choreographers’ work for the ballets was interesting and my daughter’s favourite bit, and I liked the concept of Mark Wallinger’s Diana, which ‘offers us a contemporary encounter with a living, breathing Diana, while reminding us of the perils of looking’, although while I was waiting to have a peep there was one person who seemed to spend a rather unhealthy amount of time peering in.

The (free) exhibition is on until the 23rd of September, it’s well worth going to just for the Titians – the gallery is also showing Titian’s The Flight Into Egypt until the 19th of August, but be prepared to queue for there are airport levels of security while the Olympics are on.

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Imagining the past, remembering the future: Charles Fernyhough at the Royal Institution

Baby in the MirrorCharles Fernyhough wrote one of my favourite popular science books, The Baby in the Mirror, a moving account of his daughter Athena’s first three years; he also gave an equally interesting talk based on the book at the Royal Institution back in March 2010.

Pieces of LightHis new book, Pieces of Light: the new science of memory, also uses his family’s experiences to illustrate the subject, and last night he was back at the RI.

I wasn’t too sure about the first ten minutes, though: it appeared pointless, and apparently was supposed to be funny; it involved Paul McCaffrey not knowing what words like ecphoric and liminal mean, and it was filmed for a new series for BBC3.

Charles Fernyhough, however, knows what words like ecphoric and autonoetic mean, and he’s able to communicate the meaning of obscure and difficult concepts to the uninitiated, explaining how the sense of self is constructed from memories, and how language is a necessity for the laying down of memories – the suggestion being that this is the reason that most adults’ earliest memories tend to be from around the age of 3½.

Memories are not like a DVD but are constructed for the present like a collage, with different elements pulled together from the different areas of the brain. And memories can be influenced by other things, like remembering pictures, and remembering memories of remembering. Memories can be constructed artificially too, with over 20% of adults having non-believed memories, i.e. they have a memory that they know to be false.

The talk helped elucidate some questions I have had about some of my memories. For a long time I remembered an event which I was sure must have happened when I was not much more than a toddler, a memory of me running out of our front door and along a concrete path. Then, a few years ago, I realised that I was remembering this as an observer, from the point of view of an adult watching, and so I decided I must have seen a photo at some time which was what I was recalling, rather than the actual event. However, apparently this is common in recalling events and is called an ‘observer memory’ (as opposed to a ‘field memory’).

I had a memory which I knew to be in my very early childhood, not much more than a vague sense of lying (I thought in my pram) watching leaves moving in the wind with the sky behind, framed by what I always assume was the pram hood, and I had long concluded that it was not a real memory at all as I thought it implausible that I could remember something from that early in my life; however, early memories are often fragmentary, just a flash, and apparently A S Byatt has a memory that is very similar to mine. I also have a very strong, but very indistinct memory, which is just of being in a car and looking out the window and seeing what is going past (nothing more than that, not even what was going past). I’m pleased to know that even if they’re not real memories, they at least quite possibly are.

Involuntary memories are interesting things – Proustian memories that are triggered by a chance sensory stimulus such as a smell. He described them as being very disconcerting, almost unpleasant, to some people; in my experience of this it was very physical, almost like being punched in the stomach, and taking some time to settle down again.

Concluding the talk, he said that as we can edit memories, we can rewrite the self; and that one of the main functions of memory is to plan for the future. I’m planning to finish some of the books I am currently reading quite soon so that I can start reading

During the Q&A session after the talk a young member of the audience was given the microphone and asked: ‘Daddy, you still haven’t answered my question.’ It turned out that Isaac, Charles Fernyhough’s son, had recently caught his first fish, which had triggered a memory in Charles of catching his first fish. The question was, what colour was the fish, and he can’t remember. Later in the Q&A someone suggested that the probability was that the fish was silver; the next time Isaac asks what colour the fish was, Charles will almost certainly remember it as silver (but at least he will know why he does).

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South Downs / The Browning Version at the Harold Pinter Theatre

For many years Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version has been paired with his Harlequinade. The Chichester Festival Theatre wanted to stage The Browning Version to commemorate the centenary of the author’s birth, the Terence Rattigan Estate deciding they would like a different play to go with it, and so approached David Hare to write one. South Downs is the result, and the double bill is now showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

My daughter took me to see it as a belated present for Fathers’ Day, and I’m very glad she did so. South Downs is a very good play, The Browning Version is a great play, and they were equally well-staged and well-acted. All the performances were very good, but two stood out from the others o me: Alex Lawther is excruciating as the awkward, bullied Blakemore in South Downs, and Nicholas Farrell as Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version.

I could say a lot more but my daughter has an excellent post about them on her blog and so I will refer you to her. Tomorrow we go to see Posh at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

P.S. Posh was excellent, improved by having my seat upgraded to the Royal Circle, and the cast was exceptional. Once again, I can refer you to my daughter’s post on her blog (this is saving me a lot of effort!).

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Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Michael Wood has been at the heart of some excellent history television programmes for over thirty years. His latest project, The Great British Story: a People’s History, developed from The Story of England which told the history of the country from the viewpoint of one community. Last week at The Lightbox in Woking I saw an extract from a forthcoming episode of the new series during a talk about one of my historical heroes.

Not enough people have heard of him although in some circles he is, or has been, thought of very highly. In Moscow there is a monument, one of the earliest to be set up in Soviet Russia, to commemorate ‘outstanding thinkers and fighters for the emancipation of the working people’.1 It has the names of only nineteen people, and alongside Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Charles Fourier and Thomas More is listed one Gerrard Winstanley.

The English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century led to the beheading of Charles I and the setting up of a theocratic republic: a time of great turmoil, some thinking that Judgement Day was approaching – Christopher Hill’s excellent book on the period is called The World Turned Upside Down. A number of religious sects came into being at the time, many of them with rather odd names – the Ranters, Muddlers, Levellers, Quakers, Muggletonians, and the Diggers.

Winstanley has been the subject of an eponymous  film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, based on a novel (Comrade Jacob) by David Caute, a song by Billy Bragg, as well as many many books and academic articles, and was quoted in a speech by Gordon Brown:

‘Call it as Abraham Lincoln did – the better angels of our nature; call it as Gerrard Winstanley did – the light in man; call it as Adam Smith did – the moral sentiment; call it benevolence, as the Victorians did; virtue; the claim of justice; doing one’s duty. Or call it as Pope Paul VI did – “the good of each and all”.’2

I think most historians would agree that Winstanley was a communist: he described private property as ‘the curse and burden the creation groans under’. I think he was also an anarchist, but he was also a very religious man who thought God was to be found as a light within each person.

In an early example of Direct Action he and his followers occupied part of St George’s Hill in Surrey, built shelters and tilled the soil with the intention of producing food. They were eventually violently harassed and forced to move on, going to Little Heath in Cobham where they had slightly more success, but were again eventually, and very violently, evicted.

It was a relatively small action by a few people lasting a short period of time, but it is still seen by many as a defining moment in British politics, Winstanley is a hero of the Left even now, and his thoughts are there for us in his writings, now available (at a price) as his Complete Works. Apparently the Lennon line ‘there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done’ refers to him.

There’s a plaque in his memory in Cobham Church, there is a Diggers Trail, consisting of a number of information boards in various parts of Elmbridge Borough, as well as a monument to Winstanley near Weybridge Station (as well as in Moscow). This was placed on St George’s Hill during a more recent occupation, but removed at the same time as the occupiers and subsequently placed in its present position.winstanley memorial

It’s ironic that St George’s Hill is now one of the (if not the) most exclusive private estates in the country, gated with private security guards restricting access (there’s an account of Iain Sinclair’s foray into the estate in his excellent London Orbital).

In Cobham there is a mural depicting Winstanley – theological libertarian, ur-communist and advocate of the redistribution of wealth, believer in fairness for all, hater of greed and duplicity. It’s on the side of Barclays Bank.

winstanley mural

The best book I have found specifically on the Diggers is John Gurney’s Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution, just recently, and at last, reissued in paperback; Gurney also has a biography of Winstanley due out in the autumn. Winstanley and the Diggers, 1649-1999 edited by Andrew Bradstock is also excellent, although being a series of conference papers is uneven and quite dry reading in parts. Weybridge Museum sells Gerrard Winstanley in Elmbridge by David C Taylor, which is a useful short introduction to the subject.


Adam Smith Institute

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Claudia Hammond: Time Warped at the Royal Institution

My son was due back from a college trip to Brussels this evening, supposedly at about 8 o’clock, but I was just getting ready to go out when he rang and asked me to pick him up as they had got back to the UK early. My wife hadn’t got home from work so I had to go and get him. Driving on the M25 a little after 5 o’clock is not my favourite pastime, nor one of the fastest of activities. I was conscious that I had very little time before it would be too late for me to go to London; although the motorway was quite busy the average speed was probably about 60mph, yet the journey seemed to take at least twice as long as usual. I’d noticed that the clockwise carriageway was heavily congested, so having collected my son I drove back using non-motorway roads. Despite heavy traffic, closed level crossing gates, a multitude of bicycles, and probably because of a blatant disregard of speed limits, I managed to get my son home, grab my ticket, and get to the station just in time to catch the latest train that would get me to the Royal Institution in time.

Time WarpedIn the train I started reading Claudia Hammond’s recent book, Time Warped: unlocking the mysteries of time perception. It soon became apparent that it is one of those excellent books, all too few and far between, that is packed with information yet still holds one’s interest and reads very easily. The train journey to Vauxhall passed almost without my noticing it and it was presumably only because I was subconsciously listening to the train announcements that I was aware when I had to get off the train.

Claudia Hammond voice is very familiar to me as she has been broadcasting on Radio 4 for quite a few years now, for the last seven years presenting All in the Mind. The talk this evening, based on her book and also called Time Warped, was most entertaining, and as interesting as her book – she spoke for 55 minutes, yet it seemed like less.

The talk, as the book, was about one’s perception of time rather than the physics, and there has been some very interesting and enterprising experiments carried out over the years (some of the experimenters also being the experimentees).

Chapters of the book relate to different aspects of our perception of time – 20% of people have spatial visualisation of time, thought to be a form of synaesthesia, and most people in our culture would at least visualise time as moving from left to right. Why does time slow down or speed up when we are bored, scared, or even hot? And why does time speed up when we get older?

Why does our prospective and retrospective judgement disagree, for example as in what the author describes as the ‘Holiday Paradox’, where our holiday seems to pass really quickly whereas on returning home and looking back it seems to have lasted for much longer? Prospectively judging time as it happens involves our attention and our emotion, whereas retrospectively judging it also involves memory, and our memory has been shown to be notoriously poor at accurately recalling when events occurred.

Another interesting thing is that if there is a master clock in our brain that keeps track of time, then no-one has been able to find it. It would appear that there are several mechanisms in different parts of the brain that measure different sorts of time, along with other, hitherto unidentified ways, and the brain assembles our perception of time using all of them.

There has been some recent work done on whether time perception disorders can be linked to other problems such as schizophrenia, ADHD, or dyslexia – and it seems that they almost certainly can. A cognitive neuro-scientist has been able to use time perception tests to correctly identify 70% of cases of ADHD.

There’s a variety of stuff to do and connect to on the Canongate Claudia Hammond Channel, and links to things on the Facebook page.

I still have half the book to read, but I’m happy to go to sleep shortly and read the rest tomorrow – after I have woken up having slept for 7 hours or so yet still being aware that that time has passed. Although now I look at the clock I realise it’s much later than I thought it was – over an hour later in fact. So, a little under 6 hours sleep.

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Plays on Words and Kids Week

I really have to give a quick plug to a new blog about the theatre – Words on Plays. So far there have been two posts, one on Antigone at the National Theatre, and another on Kids Week, the scheme giving free theatre tickets to children, and young people and the theatre in general. I have to admit to a vested interest, as the blog is written by my daughter who has just finished her degree at Leeds University, but it is very good, so do have a look.

Blog postings on here have been very few and far between lately, and although I have been doing some very interesting things, lately most of my time has been taken up with getting my new bookselling website up and running. I am pleased to say that it has been made by an independent developer here in the UK, and I am also pleased to say that I am very pleased with it. Daniel at Eviam has been amazingly helpful and supportive, and the site is shaping up much as I hoped. I (and Daniel) still have a lot of work to do, and I will be glad to hear of any glitches so that they can be addressed.

I have several half-written posts languishing on my laptop – I must try to make the effort to get something finished and published before too long.

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