I went to another festival event on Monday, this time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Not been to the Book Festival before and had a very pleasant afternoon (other than the rain on the way there) pottering around the covered walkways, going to the talk and looking around temporary bookshops erected up in Charlotte Square. I'd recommend a visit even if you are not going for a talk as it was a very relaxing place especially for being right in the middle of Edinburgh city centre. That said I'm not sure what it would be like at a busy time at the weekend...
The talk itself took the format of an discussion moderated and lead by a nice chap whose name I have forgotten but had a grandfather feel about him followed up by a question and answer session with the audience at large. The two authors involved were Steve Fuller, a sociologist from the University of Warwick and Dan Hind who works as a book editor.
The discussion ranged over many topics but was centred around the development of the Enlightenment period in the West and how factors that drove it then not only were the same ones in operation that drove the Reformation but are also the same ones driving modern day Creationism and Intelligent Design.
The basic idea is that all are driven by individuals and groups rebelling against the dominant authority 'knowledge' figure of the time and a desire to put back into the hands of the general population the authority to decide what is True or False. In the Reformation it was the centralised Catholic Church that was rebelled against, in the Enlightenment period it was religion in general and nowadays it is science since science now occupies the 'gold standard' of knowledge.
So rather than being an active rebellion against any one particular idea it could all be seen as one common cultural stream throughout Western history. Its an interesting idea and not one I'd previously considered. Although it says nothing specifically about whether individual ideas are correct or not it does explain why there always seem to be people pushing against what others find perfectly adequate or acceptable about society around them.
The Q+A after explored the issues in more detail but I think is where problems began. Initially I thought Dan Hind was being quiet and Steve Fuller was just a more confident speaker. Unfortunately this did not seem to be so. Dan Hind was indeed a quiet kind of guy, but Steve Fuller turned out to be a 'shouter' type of arguer who got louder and louder the more people couldn't understand his points. Very quickly this started to annoy as he came to dominate the debate rather unfairly and with condemnation for those in the audience who disagreed with him.
Bit like Richard Dawkins in style - for which Steve Fuller criticised Dawkins on...
Fuller argued that science does not deserve to be the gold standard of knowledge and that other ways of understanding the universe (religion, philosophy, opinion, etc) should be helping science to decide what was correct and incorrect in the realm of scientific investigation.
His example of this was that of Intelligent Design (ID), which as he pointed out (and I agree with) has important philosophical things to say. Whilst agreeing that ID was attempting to establish itself as a science he seemed to be suggesting it could not be negated on the scientific grounds that ID itself sought to establish itself on purely because it had these philosophical implications.
It was a little confusing to say the least. It was wanting to be taken as a science... but couldn't be disproved by science as it had some form of protection from philosophy.... yet could be used as an alternative to evolution on non-scientific grounds when it would otherwise have been discarded...
His only reason that science should not occupy a gold standard (of any sort including in its own domain) was that it was unfair to other streams of knowledge that might have something to say whether or not those statements could shown to be objectively true or false - sort of a postmodern take on science. This completely misses the point that science is a special type of knowledge that makes definite statements on how the world is irrespective of who is making those statements.
Surely evolution has some philosophical implications too? Therefore all being equal shouldn't it have this same magical protection from criticism? Apparently not as evolution is just science apparently and not the noble underdog with something to say.
It was quite strange.
He also let rip into some poor bloke who dared to speak up for science, demanding of him what use is science and why does he do science etc?? Obviously a sore point for Fuller as he also demanded to know who should find scientific research if it was just about discovery. At that point someone should have taken away his microphone and any medication he might have been on, after all they were only the result of discoveries. Maybe its a chip on his shoulder as the physical sciences get more public money than the social sciences...
(As an aside maybe given the advances that science has made that have benefited wider society as a whole it deserves to have more money invested in it? And possibly this is why it is now the new 'gold standard'?)
At this point though the guy chairing the meeting did make the old joke of sociologists only needing a waste paper basket to do their work. The audience laughed, Fuller grimaced.
Overall it was an interesting discussion to go to, marred only by Steve Fuller's regular nonsensical statements. Afterwards I looked him up online and if I had done before I ordered my ticket I might not have gone. I didn't go to the Dawkins talk in the morning as I am interested in open and reasoned debate on these sorts of issues and I don't think that's what Fuller offered here in the end. Dan Hind seemed a nice chap though.
You'll probably start hearing more and more about CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the news over for next few months as they are finally about to start operating it now that it is nearing completion after many years of construction.
The LHC is arguably the most complex and ambitious science facility ever constructed, but as the video below explains for the questions it is tackling it needs to be.
In a similar manner to their previous output statement on Intelligent Design, members of the International Society for Science and Religion have issued a well considered statement on the development of so called cybrids and chimeras for use in biomedical research, an issue that has been much in the public mind in the UK over the last couple of years.
For some reason this is so often a source of contention between Christians when they come to think about issues of science and belief when it is in many ways very much not the case and a non-issue. Robin offers some considered and gentle thoughts on the topic that are well worth reading through.
Continuing thoughts from prior posts (1, 2) on near-far future ideas and how they might shape and influence the make up and culture of humanity and the Church I have been giving some further thought to Scenario 5 (the bodily return of Christ to humanity) outlined in my earlier post here.
This has been partly influenced by an off-hand remark from a friend about if I thought Jesus would return as the Terminator. After laughing I thought about it. Although I don't think he would return as the Terminator itself (which model of Terminator is closer to the true 'Image of God' that Christ represents after all) it did get me thinking about how Christ might physically appear/be at his return.
The Bible itself is pleasantly unclear on this fact and even in the book of Revelation, which tells of the end times, we get a number of different representations including a lamb (5.13), lion (5:5) and a humanoid (1:17). The lion and the lamb are clearly figurative in the context in which they are spoken of and in some passages (such as 1:15-16) this clearly applies to at least aspects of the humanoid representation too.
Given that the Bible talks not only of God having to take on flesh and the physical characteristics of human kind to accomplish his mission of redemption, but in general regards God as spirit not physical and also that humans are Godlike rather than God being humanlike I think there is perhaps a danger of limiting in our minds to how God might choose to present himself to us.
As Christ took on human form 2000 years ago in order to provide redemption for humanity need he be restrained to only return in only that form now that his mission in that regard has been completed?
My answer would be no and I would suggest he would return in a form perhaps more suitable to engage and undertake relational community with the Church at his return. Indeed after his resurrection there are indications that he is already no longer constrained by a pre-resurrection body and so is already different from the rest of humanity in some regards.
If the other scenarios I outlined previously become reality before Christ's return then the physical form that the Church is taking at that time is potentially drastically different to its current one. If that is so how relevant would it be for Christ to return as a 'pure-bred' human?
If humanity has merged with the technological and moved beyond biology it is possible that the arrival of a biological human would be irrelevant to that new community - possibly even just an oddity. Or on the other hand if humanity has adapted its biology to a wide range of other planetary habitats how helpful or beneficial is it for Christ to return as a breed of human long-abandoned to those around him?
Conversely if the Church is now composed of not only diversified humans, but also now home to mechanoids of all descriptions and also alien intelligence also of a spectrum of forms what would it mean to large sectors of the Church for Christ to return in the form of physically ancient humanity?
If this may seem a bit strange and far out I wouldn't worry too much - just speculation for now. Whatever form his return takes it will still be a triumphal return, it may just look a bit different to, maybe beyond, anything we may presently be expecting.
Given the ambiguity of the Bible on this matter, the potential new directions we are facing for the future as a species and simply that God need not be constrained by our understandings or viewpoints, even a 'modest' statement like I made for Scenario 5 is perhaps much more exciting to think about than it first looks.
One other important thing to note here is that if God is not constrained to only the human physical condition I think that that says we should be less concerned with preserving that same condition out of a misplaced attachment to it. Not saying that we should therefore change our human physical state only that it is one less reason not to if the need arises...
On Saturday evening a slightly enlarged group of us went on to see Michael Frayn's play 'Copenhagen' brought to life by Poimandres Productions.
It's play I've wanted to see for a while and had heard very good reviews on it from both scientists and non-scientists. The basic plot of the play concerns an infamous meeting between two of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th Century. Nothing too unusual there you might think, but this meeting was at the height of World War II and the two physicists in question were the creators of atomic and nuclear theory, namely Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr. One was German, the other from occupied Denmark. One the returning pupil come good, the other the old mentor. Adopted son and Father.
Soon after though both were working on nuclear weapons programmes, one for the Nazis and one for the Allies. No contest on who got there first in the end, but as the play explores nobody really knows what was said at this infamous meeting nor even why Heisenberg visited Bohr.
Did Bohr give away something he shouldn't have? Was he already at work on the Allies nuclear project? Did Heisenberg want to build the Bomb first to save his fellow German civilians? Or was he looking for a way out, a way to delay the German project to give the Allies the upper hand?
No one knows, but these and many other permutations, options and conflicting motivations are eloquently explored through the three cast members playing Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe.
At two hours long (plus an interval) the play is perhaps a little long, but it is engrossing throughout as the roles of hero and villain swing back and forth between the two physicists and black and white are shown to be very grey.
A tribute to the entire cast and the plays writer is the minimal use of props and the authentic feel of the language and historicity of the script and its performance. You really do feel transported back to that time and the issues become real and alive, not just some tome of recent history. You get to know and feel for the characters, gaining some insight to the contradictions of the era introduced by conqueror and conquered.
There is some physics thrown in as well, but only to highlight parts of the dilemmas faced as needed. Although I was comfortable with it I did wonder what a non-physicist might make of it all.
Overall though this was a superb show and although it is not on any more if you ever hear about it being performed elsewhere I'd urge you to see it. Not just for the clever script or acting but to gain some real insight into events that changed the world, events driven by a short, half-forgotten meeting between two men, giants in their field, but caught in a very human situation.
It's festival time in Edinburgh, which means that the streets are clogged with coaches, buses and slow moving nitwits who don't understand that some people are actually working in the city so they really should get out of the way when someone repeatedly asks to get by.
The city is also full of comedians, readers, musicians and other performers of varying descriptions which on the whole is a good thing as this year I have finally gotten around to actually going to some festival shows.
On Saturday lunchtime I went to It Is Rocket Science! performed by Helen Keen with some assistance from her friend and President Kennedy. The blurb for the show promises Space Nazis, Engineers and a history of rocket research all of which you get in and amongst the jokes.
With a title like that it would be hard for me to avoid so I went along with a bunch of friends (all of whom may or may not have strong connections to science research as well...) to give it a try as it was in the previews and only a fiver so not too risky.
Upon arrival at the 'Wee Room' we weren't sure what to expect as we had apparently bought all five tickets for the venue which itself looked like a wardrobe with some fancy paint on it. So unsure of we of what might happen (interaction was quickly vetoed) that we had to go and retrieve one person who kept vanishing. Turns out there were a lot more than five tickets and this might have been an early encounter with 'fringe comedy'. Ha ha. How we were laughing...
But anyway, the show began and it was really good fun. Lasting an hour we laughed most of the way through and kept advanced physics based knowledge to ourselves. Despite our reluctance to interact one of us ended up as a Russian President and another as a very imaginative and active wormhole.
I'm not much of a live comedy buff so can't really say how it compares to other shows, but it was very enjoyable and Helen Keen is an enthusiastic and personable story teller with a passion for the content of the show. And temping. And shadow puppets. And postman.
Science + comedy. It works. For those of you who doubt it, go and see the show. It is showing at 12.30pm most days until the 25th of August up at the Gilded Balloon Teviot in Bristo Square.
I am a physicist currently working in biomedical research.
Firstly though and (hopefully) before all else I am a follower of Christ (commonly called a Christian).
I like fudge, roasts, good company, spiders and something else.
Warring, transforming robots are quite good fun too.