Vale: Murray Sayle

The death has occurred of Australian journalist Murray Sayle (1926-2010) whose reports from Japan I particularly remember.   Harold Jackson has an amusing reminiscence of their time together in Prague, in the immediate aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, here.   In addition to enjoying his writing, I always felt a personal link to Sayle, in a 6-degrees-of-separation way:  he was a school-friend of my late headmaster Colin Meale, who introduced me to the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich.   As I recall, Col did not much like the music of his younger brother Richard, though.

Col’s fast-witted son Tony I remember here.


A family member has just been posted to Iraq for the first time, so I here send my best wishes for a safe deployment and return.
I use this opportunity to remember the one person I know who has not returned from there:  Lt Tom Mildinhall, of 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, musician and graduate in AI, who died on 28 May 2006, and whom I first met at a performance of Elijah in St Paul’s Church, Hammersmith, in 2000.   The Evening Standard on 17 March 2008 ran a story about him, containing tributes from his family and friends.  Another report about him is here. May he rest in peace.

Dyson on string theory

Physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson on string theory:

But when I am at home at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, I am surrounded by string theorists, and I sometimes listen to their conversations. Occasionally I understand a little of what they are saying. Three things are clear.  First, what they are doing is first-rate mathematics. The leading pure mathematicians, people like Michael Atiyah and Isadore Singer, love it. It has opened up a whole new branch of mathematics, with new ideas and new problems. Most remarkably,  it gave the mathematicians new methods to solve old problems that were previously unsolvable.  Second, the string theorists think of themselves as physicists rather than mathematicians. They believe that their theory describes something real in the physical world. And third, there is not yet any proof that the theory is relevant to physics.  The  theory is not yet testable by experiment. The theory remains in a world of its own, detached from the rest of physics. String theorists make strenuous efforts to deduce consequences of the theory that might be testable in the real world, so far without success.
. . .
Finally, I give you my own guess for the future of string theory. My guess is probably wrong. I have no illusion that I can predict the future. I tell [page-break] you my guess, just to give you something to think about. I consider it unlikely that string theory will turn out to be either totally successful or totally useless. By totally successful I mean that it is a complete theory of physics, explaining all the details of particles and their interactions. By totally useless I mean that it remains a beautiful piece of pure mathematics. My guess is that string theory will end somewhere between complete success and failure. I guess that it will be like the theory of Lie groups, which Sophus Lie created in the nineteenth century as a mathematical framework for classical physics. So long as physics remained classical, Lie groups remained a failure. They were a solution looking for a problem. But then, fifty years later, the quantum revolution transformed physics, and Lie algebras found their proper place. They became the key to understanding the central role of symmetries in the quantum world. I expect that fifty or a hundred years from now another revolution in physics will happen, introducing new concepts of which we now have no inkling, and the new concepts will give string theory a new meaning. After that, string theory will suddenly find its proper place in the universe, making testable statements about the real world. I warn you that this guess about the future is probably wrong. It has the virtue of being falsifiable, which according to Karl Popper is the hallmark of a scientific statement. It may be demolished tomorrow by some discovery coming out of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.” (page 221-222)

POSTSCRIPT (2012-12-27):  Physicist Jim Al-Khalili interviewed in The New Statesman (21 December 2012 – 3 January 2013, page 57):

Theoretical physics in the past hundred years has sometimes bordered on metaphysics and philosophy, especially when we come up with ideas that we can’t see a way of testing experimentally.   For me, science is empirical – it is about gathering evidence.  It’s debatable whether something like superstring theory, which is at the forefront of theoretical physics, is proper science because we still haven’t designed an experiment to test it.”

The link to metaphysics should come as no surprise, since all scientific investigations eventually end there, as Boulton argued.
Freeman Dyson [2009]:  Birds and frogs.  Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 56 (2): 212-223, February 2009.   Available here.

On birds and frogs

I have posted before about the two cultures of pure mathematicians – the theory-builders and the problem-solvers.  Thanks to string theorist and SF author Hannu Rajaniemi, I have just seen a fascinating paper by Freeman Dyson, which draws a similar distinction – between the birds (who survey the broad landscape, making links between disparate branches of mathematics) and the frogs (who burrow down in the mud, solving particular problems in specific branches of the discipline).   This distinction is analogous to that between a focus on breadth and a focus on depth, respectively, as strategies  in search.   As Dyson says, pure mathematics as a discipline needs both personality-types if it is to make progress.   Yet, a tension often exists between these types:  in my experience, frogs are often disdainful of birds for lacking deep technical expertise.   I have less often encountered disdain from birds, perhaps because that is where my own sympathies are.
A similar tension exists in computing – a subject which needs both deep technical expertise AND a rich awareness of the breadth of applications to which computing may be put.  This need arises because the history of the subject shows an intricate interplay of theory and applications, led almost always by the application.    Turing’s abstract cineprojector model of computing arrived a century after Babbage’s calculating machines, for example, and we’ve had programmable devices since at least Jacquard’s loom in 1804, yet only had a mathematical theory of programming since the 1960s.  In fact, since computer science is almost entirely a theory of human artefacts (apart from that part – still small – which looks at natural computing), it would be strange indeed were the theory to divorce itself from the artefacts which are its scope of study.
A story which examplifies this division in computing is here.
Freeman Dyson [2009]:  Birds and frogs.  Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 56 (2): 212-223, February 2009.   Available here.

The world beyond our five senses

Over at Normblog, Norm has a typically open-minded discussion about religion and its possible attractions for its adherents:

Both Howard [Jakobson] and Tim [Crane], then, neither of them speaking as a believer, sees religion as making the world, so to say, fuller for its adherents – with more of interest, of meaning, of things, even, beyond our grasp. This reminds me of the occasion I asked a religious friend about the basis of his belief and he cut the conversation short by saying simply that his life would be poorer without it.
All I can say is that this account of religion doesn’t work for me – I mean, to shift me – and for two reasons. The first is that the world seems like an intensely interesting place already, without any extra population of meanings and mysteries. Just look, read. There’s no end of it, never mind a fullness. The second is that I don’t feel free to add a further layer of things to those for which some evidence can be supplied, and if I did, I wouldn’t know where to stop. Why just those mysteries?

I think Norm, and the accounts he cites, miss something that is often important both to religious believers and to practitioners of religious activities (two overlapping but not identical groups, as I have explained before).    What is missing is that for many people in these two groups, their interest in religious ideas and practices arises from a contact they have had, or which they perceive they have had, with entities from a non-material realm. This contact usually involves none of their so-called five senses, but is experienced deeply nonetheless.  One can know something from merely being in the presence of somebody, as may happen, for example, when we experience the strong love of another person.
Of course, it may be that people who have had such spiritual experiences are deluded in thinking they had them, or even, that they delude themselves.  Experiments exciting certain parts of the brain with small electric currents can apparently induce very similar perceptions of religious experiences in people.   Even so, such experiments do not demonstrate, or even make likely, the absence of non-material entities; in precisely the same way, patients with tinnitus do not demonstrate that all sound is generated inside our own heads and we all live in a silent universe.
So it is perfectly possible that people who perceive they have had direct contact with non-material realms may indeed have had such contact.  This possibility exists even though Richard Dawkins and many another famous person seem not to have had such experiences.  Moreover, the lack of spiritual experiences for some people also tells us nothing about the existence or non-existence of spiritual realms and beings.   Not all of us are born able to hear, for example, but the fact that some people are born deaf is also not usually taken as a sign that the universe itself is silent.  It may thus, indeed, be those who believe that they have not had contacts with a non-material realm who are deluded, or who are deluding themselves.  In a situation of such widespread ignorance, with neither replicable evidence for the existence of spiritual entities nor any evidence against their existence, it behooves no one to be arrogant about his or her position.  (For the record, I do not count Norm in this combined category of arrogant atheists and arrogant religious believers.)
And to Norm’s larger point:   If a person has had such an experience, what does she find?  First, she finds that the experience is entirely discounted by science, since it cannot be replicated via experiment.  This arrogant disdain for phenomena that it cannot yet explain has sadly been a feature of western science since its inception.   Second, she finds that she cannot talk openly about this experience, at least not in a modern western office or university.    In the supremely rationalist environment of our business and education worlds, talking about spiritual experiences among colleagues is one sure way nowadays to receive laughter, scorn and derision.   That is very different from, say, the situation in the West in the middle of the 19th century, or the situation still today in Africa or in Australian Aboriginal society, societies where spiritual experiences are widely respected.   Having lived in both the West and in Africa, I know this difference very well.   Third, she would find no explanation or meaning for her experience in any academic discipline, apart from theology and poetry, and perhaps the arts and music.    She would, however, likely find great sympathy from pure mathematicians, who grapple daily with entities which seem to have existence and properties independent of the material realm, entities which are entirely imaginary, outside the world of our five senses, and yet which seem to exist in some fashion, often sublimely connected with one another.  (The square root of minus 1, for example, is entirely imaginary, yet its properties are not random, to be invented as we might wish from whole cloth, but are decidedly what they are.)
For Norm, the material world is rich and interesting enough as it is, and needs no further explanation.   If you have ever experienced something beyond the material, then I suggest that finding an explanation or interpretation of that experience which makes some sense of it for you is not nothing, and is a quest not to be ridiculed or derided, however quixotic that quest might prove.  Personally, I cannot understand how anyone who has encountered the Euler Equation  – which links an imaginary number with two important transcendental numbers, along with the respective identities for addition and multiplication – could possibly believe that the material world is all there is.

In defence of secularism

Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster, London, is apparently upset at modern, liberal secular society, claiming (inter alia) that:

Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage, in essence one of the most anti-Catholic landscapes, culturally speaking – more than even those places where Catholics suffer open persecution.”

This is nonsense.  It was secularists – atheists, agnostics, non-believers, liberals, and anti-bigots – who led the campaign in Britain for Catholic emancipation, the right to vote, and the right to sit in Parliament, granted in 1829.   It was secularists who achieved the right for Jews to sit in Parliament from 1858 and the right to vote in 1867, something that the same political party currently ruling Britain stymied for a quarter century.  (The bill emancipating Jews passed the House of Commons in 1833, but was repeatedly blocked in the House of Lords by Conservative peers and bishops.  What reasonable person with knowledge of this history could belong to such a party?)  It was secularists, not the religious, who led the campaign which ended the deaths of women in illegal back-street abortions and gave equal rights to people regardless of their gender or colour or sexual orientation.  It was even  secularists who passed a law in 2001 – yes, 2001!  – that finally allowed Catholic priests and former priests to sit in the British Parliament.    If not for secularism and the progressive extension of political and social rights to all citizens, regardless of their religion or race or gender, Edmund Adamus would not even have the freedom of speech to voice his obnoxious opinions.
Few things make me angry.  Religious bigotry and racial prejudice are among them.  So too is this stupidity of religious conservatives, unable to see where there own self-interests lie.  Their interests are best served by a secular society and state which guarantees equal rights to all, not special rights to some on the basis of their religious beliefs or their gender or any other biological or social construct.  Britain is still not entirely there yet, with the fact of unelected, unrepresentative, and unaccountable Church of England Bishops still sitting in the House of Lords (and thus voting on legislation that impacts us all), and the country’s denial of religious freedom for the Head of State and his or her immediate family.  But the great progress in extending freedom to all that has been made these last 200 years is due to secularism and secularists, not to religious bigotry or obscurantism.