Philosophy and Science

Philosophy can be described, not altogether accurately, as the things that science can’t address. With the modern urge to compartmentalise things, we designate some problems as philosophy and science, and conveniently ignore the fuzzy boundary between the two disciplines.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t appear to distinguish much between philosophy and science as such, and the term “Natural Philosophy” described the whole field before the advent of science. The Scientific Revolution of Newton, Leibniz and the rest had the effect of splitting natural philosophy into science and philosophy.

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford Universit...

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Note apple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science is (theoretically at least) build on observations. You can’t seriously believe a theory that contradicts the facts, although there is a get-out clause. You can believe such a theory if you have an explanation as to why it doesn’t fit the facts, which amounts to having an extended theory that includes a bit that contains the explanation for the discrepancy.

Philosophy however, is intended to go beyond the facts. Way beyond the facts. Philosophy asks question for example about the scientific method and why it works, and why it works so well. It asks why things are the way they are and other so called “deep” questions.

One of the questions that Greek philosopher/scientists considered was what everything is made of. Some of them thought that it was made up four elements and some people still do. Democritus had a theory that everything was made up of small indivisible particles, and this atomic theory is a very good explanation of the way things work at a chemical level.

Democritus and his fellow philosopher/scientists had, it is true, some evidence to go and to be fair so did those who preferred the four elements theory, but the idea was more philosophical in nature rather than scientific, I feel. While it was evident that while many substances could be broken down into their components by chemical method, some could not.

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of comb...

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of combustion as a chemical reaction with oxygen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Democritus would have looked at a lump of sulphur, for example, and considered it to be made up of many atoms of sulphur. The competing theory of the four elements however can’t easily explain the irreducible nature of sulphur.

My point here is that while these theories explained some of the properties of matter, the early philosopher/scientists were not too interested in experimentation, so these theories remained philosophical theories. It was not until the Scientific Revolution arrived that these theories were actually tested, albeit indirectly and the science of chemistry took off.

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus...

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus from Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum. Image enhanced for legibility. The abbreviations in the center of the diagram read: C[entrum] æquantis (Center of the equant) C[entrum] deferentis (Center of the deferent) C[entrum] mundi (Center of the world) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before that, chemical knowledge was very run by recipes and instructions. Once scientists realised the implications of atomic theory, they could predict chemical reactions and even weigh atoms, or at least assign masses to atoms, and atomic theory moved from philosophy to science.

That’s not such a big change as you might think. Philosophy says “I’ve got some vague ideas about atoms”. Science says “Based on observations, your theory seems good and I can express your vague ideas more concretely in these equations. Things behave as if real atoms exist and that they behave that way”. Science cannot say that things really are that way, or that atoms really exist as such.

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms nu...

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, when scientists took a closer look at these atom things they found some issues. For instance the (relative) masses of the atoms are mostly pretty close to integers. Hydrogen’s mass is about 1, Helium’s is about 4, and Lithium’s is about 7. So far so tidy. But Chlorine’s mass is measured as not being far from 35.5.

This can be resolved if atoms contain constituent particles which cannot be added or removed by chemical reactions. A Chlorine atom behaves as if it were made up of 17 positive particles and 18 or 19 uncharged particles of more or less the same mass. If you measure the average mass of a bunch of Chlorine atoms, it will come out at 35.5 (ish). Problem solved.

English: Chlorine gas

English: Chlorine gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that it has not been solved. Democritus’s atoms (it means “indivisibles”) are made up of something else. The philosophical problem is still there. If atoms are not indivisible, what are their component particles made of? The current answer seems to be that they are made of little twists of energy and probability. I wouldn’t put money on that being the absolute last word on it though. Some people think that they are made up of vibrating strings.

All through history philosophy has been raising issues without any regard for whether or not the issues can be solved, or even put to the test. Science has been taking issues at the edges of philosophy and bringing some light to them. Philosophy has been taking issues at the edge of science and conjecturing on them. Often such conjectures are taken back by science and moulded into theory again. Very often the philosophers who conjecture are the scientists who theorise, as in famous scientists like Einstein, Schroedinger and Hawking.

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result is that the realm of philosophy is reduced somewhat in some places and the realm of science is expanded to cover those areas. But the expansion of science suggests new areas for philosophy. To explain some of the features of quantum mechanics some people suggest that there are many “worlds” or universes rather than just the one familiar to us.

This is really in the realm of philosophy as it is, as yet, unsupported by any evidence (that I know of, anyway). There are philosophers/scientists on both sides of the argument so the issue is nowhere near settled and the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is only one of many interpretations. The problem is that quantum mechanics is not intuitively understandable.

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worl...

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “many worlds interpretation” at least so far the Wikipedia article goes, views reality as a many branched tree. This seems unlikely as probabilities are rarely as binary as a branched tree. Probability is a continuum, like space or time, and it is likely that any event is represented on a dimension of space, time, and probability.

I don’t know if such a possibility makes sense in terms of the equations, so that means that I am practising philosophy and not science! Nevertheless, I like the idea.

Displacement of a continuum body, from a refer...

Displacement of a continuum body, from a reference configuration to the current configuration. Continuum mechanics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Television as a medium is less than one hundred years old, yet in the sense of a broadcast over radio waves, it seems doomed as the rise of “streaming” sites takes over the role of providing the entertainment traditionally provided by broadcast television.

My first recollection of television was watching the televising of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. I can’t say that I was particularly interested at the time, but I do remember that what seemed a large number of people (probably 20 or so, kids and adults) crowded on one side of the room while the television across the room showed its flickering images on its nine inch screen.

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II X

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II X (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember when at a later date my father brought home our first television. It was a large brown cabinet with a tiny noticeably curved screen. When it was set up properly and working, it displayed a black and white image on a screen which was smaller than the screen of an iPad.

The scan lines on the screen were easily visible, and the stability of the circuits that generated the scan were unstable, so the picture would flicker and roll from top to bottom and tear from left to right. Then someone would have to jump up and twiddle some knobs on the rear of the set to adjust it back into stability, or near stability.

To start with many people did not have aerials on their roofs. For one thing, television was new, and secondly the aerials were huge. They were generally large constructions, either in an X shape or in a H shape several feet in length. Most people started with an internal aerial, the so-called “rabbit’s ear” aerials.

These were small, low down and generally didn’t work too well as they were nowhere near comparable to the wavelength of the transmitted signal. Nevertheless they enabled people to, in most cases, get some sort of a picture on their new televisions.

The trouble was that with a weak signal and unstable circuits, the person leaning over the television to tune it more often than not affected the circuits and signal. With the rest of the family yelling instructions and with a clear(-ish) picture on the screen, it only took the movement of the person tuning the set away from the set for the picture to be lost again.

Of course soon everyone had an aerial on the roof, and the aerials shrunk in size as television was moved to higher frequencies, and as the technology improved. The classic shape of a television receiver aerial consists of a bristly device, sometimes with smallish mesh reflector, one dipole and several reflectors and directors, which pretty obviously points towards a television broadcast station.

Nederlands: Zelfgemaakte schets Yagi antenne

Nederlands: Zelfgemaakte schets Yagi antenne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many tower sprung up on the tops of convenient hills to provide the necessary coverage and it is a rare place these days when the terrain or other problems prevent the reception of a television signal. Even then, coverage could probably be obtained by usage of satellite technology.

However, after several decades of dominance the end of the broadcast network looks like it is in sight. The beginning of the end was probably signalled by the Video Cassette Recorder, which enabled people to record programs for viewing later. People were no longer tied to the schedule of a broadcaster, and if they wanted to watch something that was not on the schedule, they went to a store and hired it.


English: TOSHIBA STEREO VIDEO CASSETTE RECORDER 日本語: 東芝製VHSビデオデッキ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The video cassette stores appear to be going to have an even shorter lifetime than television itself. Of course most of them have switched to DVD as the medium but that doesn’t make a significant difference.

What does make a difference is the Internet. Most people are now connected to the Internet in one way or another, and that is where they are getting a major part of their entertainment, music, news, films, games, and also that is increasingly where they are getting their TV-style entertainment, what would otherwise be called “TV series”.

English: Intertitle from the The CW television...

English: Intertitle from the The CW television program Nikita (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

TV companies produce these popular series, an example of which would be “The Big Bang Theory”. This show has run for years and is still very popular on television, but it also available for download (legitimately) from one or more companies that are set up expressly for the purpose of providing these series online, on the Internet.

In countries at the end of the world, like here, it takes months or even years for the latest episodes to be broadcast here. If they ever are. So more and more people are downloading the episodes directly from the US, either legitimately or illegitimately.

English: Step 3 of Download

English: Step 3 of Download (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This obviously hits at the revenues of the companies that make these costly shows, so, equally obviously they are trying to prevent this drain on their revenues. The trouble is that there is no simple way of ensuring that those who download these programs are paying for the service. If they are paying and the supplier is legitimate then presumably the supplier will be paying the show producers.

Once an episode is downloaded, then it is out of the control of the show’s producers. The recipient’s ethics determine if he will share it around to his friends or keep it to himself. If thousands of people (legitimately) download it, then presumably some of the less ethical will then share it on, and it soon becomes available everywhere for free.

icon for Japanese File-sharing program perfect...

icon for Japanese File-sharing program perfect dark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It will at some stage reach a point where broadcasting a television program is no longer economic. The producers will have to primarily distribute their programs via the Internet and somehow limit or discourage the sharing of the programs around. That would mean the end of TV broadcasting as we know it.

We are not anywhere near that situation yet, and the program production companies will have to come up with a new economic model that allows them to make a profit on the shows without broadcasting them over radio waves. The more able companies will survive, although they may be considerably smaller. TV actors will only be able to demand much smaller salaries, and budgets will be tighter.

English: Captioned with "Professor A.W.H ...

English: Captioned with “Professor A.W.H (Bill) Phillips with Phillip’s Machine.” Phillips was an LSE economist known for the Phillips curve and he developed MONIAC, the analog computer, shown here, that modeled economic theory with water flows. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another factor that the program production companies will have to take into account would be loss of advertising revenue. Losing advertisers can scuttle a television show, so this is not a minor factor.

Whatever happens in the long term, as I said above, a new economic model is necessary. I’ve no idea what this will look like, but I foresee the big shows moving to the Internet in a big way.

SeeSaw (Internet television)

SeeSaw (Internet television) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Broadcast TV will continue for some time, I think, as there are people who would resist moving away from it, but it is likely to be much reduced, with less new content and more reruns. It may be that the broadcast TV may be reduced to a shop window, with viewers seeing the previews and buying a series with a push of a button on their smart TVs.

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cooked in this case. I'd like to try the raw v...

cooked in this case. I’d like to try the raw version even though this was good as is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people have a hand in food preparation at some time in the day. Even those who subsist on “instant meals” will at least zap it in the microwave for the necessary amount of time. Some people however cook intricate dishes, for their own amusement or for friends and families.

Most people eat cooked food although there is somewhat of a fad for raw food at the present time. All sorts of diets are also touted as having some sort of benefit for the food conscious, all of which seem bizarre when one considers that many, many people around the world are starving.

Cooking can be described as applied chemistry, as the aim of cooking is to change the food being cooked by treating it with heat in one way or another. All the methods treatment are given names, like “boiling”, or “baking” or “roasting”. In the distant past no doubt such treatments were hit and miss, but these days, with temperature controlled ovens and ingredients which are pretty much consistent, a reasonable result can be achieved by most people.

Chemistry Is What We Are

Chemistry Is What We Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d guess that the first method of cooking was to hold a piece of meat over a fire until the outside was charred and much of the inside was cooked. However, human ingenuity soon led to spit roasting and other cooking methods. A humorous account of the accidental discovery of roasting a pig was penned by Charles Lamb. In the account the discovery came as a result of an accidental setting fire to a pig sty, and consequently, as the idea of roast pork spread this led to a rash of pig sty fires, until some sage discovered that houses and sties did not need to be burnt down and it was sufficient to hang the pig over a fire.

English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie

English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d suspect that while roasting may have been invented quite early by humans, cooking in water would have come along a lot later as more technology is needed to boil anything. That is, a container would be needed and while coconut shells and mollusc shells can contain a little water, and folded leaves would do at a pinch, when humans invented pottery, the art and science of cooking was advanced immensely.

Although the foods that we eat can pretty much all be eaten raw, most people would find cooked food much more attractive. Cooked food smells nice. The texture of cooked food is different from the texture of raw food. I expect cookery experts are taught the chemical reactions that happen in cooking, but I suspect that cooking breaks down the carbohydrates, the fats, and the proteins in the food to simpler components and that we find it easier to digest these simpler chemicals.

Maybe. That doesn’t explain why cooked food smells so much nicer than raw food. If food is left to break down by itself it smells awful, rotten, and with a few exceptions we don’t eat food that has started to decay.

Maybe the organisms that rot food produce different simpler components, or maybe the organisms produce by products that humans dislike. Other carnivores don’t seem to mind eating carrion and maybe a rotting carcass smells good to them.

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rules of cooking, the recipes have no doubt been developed by trial an error. It is likely that the knowledge was passed from cook to cook as an aural tradition initially. After all, cooking is likely to have started a long time before reading and writing were invented. Since accurate measurements were unlikely to be obtainable, much of the lore or cooking would have vague and a new cook would have to learn by cooking.

However, once the printing press was invented, after all the bibles and clerical documents had been printed, I would not be surprised to learn that the next book to be printed would have been a cook book. I’ve no evidence for this at all though!

English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Fr...

English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Français : Livre de la cuisson Fanny Farmer 1996 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cooking changes the texture of meat and vegetables, making them softer and easier to eat. Connective tissues in particular are released making a steak for example a lot more edible. Something similar happens to root vegetables, swedes, turnips, carrots and parsnips. These vegetables can be mashed or creamed once they are cooked, something that cannot be done to the rather solid uncooked vegetables.

Cooking is optional for some foods – berries and fruits for example. Apples can be enjoyed while raw when they have a pleasant crunch, or cooked in a pie, when they are sweet and smooth. Babies in particular love the sweet smoothness of cooked apple and for many of them puréed fruits or vegetables are their first “solid” foods.

Chicken eggs are cooked and eaten in many different ways. The white of an egg is made partly of albumen and when this is cooked it changes from translucent, almost transparent, to an opaque white. Almost everyone will have seen this happen, when an egg is cracked into a frying pan and cooked until the clear “white” of the egg turns to opaque white of the cooked egg.

Many other items when cooked change colour to some extent, but the white of the egg is most apparent. When you pair that with bread which is slightly carbonised on the outside, covered in the coagulated fat from cow’s milk (butter) and you have a common breakfast dish – fried eggs on toast.

English: Two slices of electrically toasted wh...

English: Two slices of electrically toasted white bread on a white plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a whole other type of cooking – baking – that relies at least partly on a chemical reaction between an alkali (baking soda or sodium bicarbonate) and an acid (often “cream of tartar” which is weakly acidic). When the two are mixed in the presence of water, carbon dioxide gas is given off, leading to gas bubbles in the dough. When the dough is cooked the bubbles are trapped inside the stiffening dough, give the baked cake the typical spongy texture.

Some cooking utilises biological reactions. When yeast, a fungus, is placed into a liquid containing sugar, it metabolises the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide, and creates alcohol. In bread making this alcohol is baked off, but it may add to the attractiveness of the smell of newly baked bread. In brewing the alcohol is the main point of the exercise, so it is retained. It may even be enhanced by distillation.

I’ve just touched on a few highlights as regards the mechanisms of cooking (and brewing!), but I’ve come to realise as I have been writing this that there are many, many other points of interest in this subject. The subject itself has a name and that name is “Molecular Gastronomy”. A grand name for a grand subject.



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Crime and Punishment

The staircase at the National Museum of Crime ...

The staircase at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m convinced that most people go through life making few real choices. Oh, we all can all look back and say “Oh, decided to do so-and-so”, but I’m convinced that we didn’t make a choice in the sense of sitting down, making list, considering alternatives, options and consequences. I guess that the nearest that we would come to doing that would be when we are budgeting, or deciding where to go on holiday.

No, our “choices” are driven by needs (“We need to go to the mall to buy….”) or desires (“Let’s eat at the Peppermill today. I had a great omelette there last week!”). Someone comes up with a need or desire and we go along with it or we don’t.

My point is that there is a thing, which I believe doesn’t exist, called “Free Will” which allows a free choice between alternatives. There is a philosophical war going on between the believers in “Free Will” and those believing in “Predestination” for millennia.

It seems to me that the closer you look at the Free Will/Free Choice thing, the more you discover the reasons that people make the choices that they do. The more reasons, obviously the less “free” the choice will be, and the more you dig the more reasons you find and the less free the choice becomes. I contend that eventually, the room for freedom of choice shrinks to nothing.

An interesting test would be to put people into a box with a screen and two buttons, and not give them any instructions except “Go into the box and sit down”. Maybe play them some elevator music to set the tone. When you pull them out after 10 minutes or so, they will have pushed zero, one or two buttons. If you then say, in a neutral tone, “You pushed zero, one, two buttons”, they will immediately begin to tell you their justifications for their action or actions.

Justification are not reasons. People often something like “Well, you left me in there with no instructions. Buttons are for pushing, So I thought that I would push one and see what happens” or “Nobody told me to push the buttons, so I didn’t”.

Traffic light aid for the blind, Herzliya, Israel

Traffic light aid for the blind, Herzliya, Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These statements say little about the reasons for the person’s actions or inactions. The reasons that they press or don’t press the buttons relate more to a person’s character and state of mind at the time than the justifications given. For instance, the person may be a rule follower, and without rules, would do nothing. Another person may be a rule breaker and, without rules, feels free to do whatever they wish. We all are a mix of both types of course.

People don’t think “I’m a rule-breaker, I’ll push a button”, so they can’t really claim this as a reason for their choice, and they can’t be said to have made a free choice if constrained by this innate or learned facet of their behaviour.

Some people believe that, in spite of the postulated fact that there is only one possible outcome when a choice is made, that a choice has in fact been made, since if the circumstances had been different a different choice would have been made.

This seems to me to be dodging the question. (It’s not “begging the question” in the strict usage of the phrase). I look at it like this: if we were to roll back time to before the moment that a choice was supposedly made, such as the point when the door of the box closed, and we let time roll forward again, could anything different happen. It is my contention that since all other factors remain the same, that the same thing would definitely happen.

תרשים כללי של פנופטיקון, מבנה הטרוטופי (פוקו)

תרשים כללי של פנופטיקון, מבנה הטרוטופי (פוקו) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is, how do we justify meting out punishment for a crime, when the criminal was unable to choose not to commit it. Take away the concept of free will and punishment of the criminal seems cruel, unnecessary and unethical at the first glance. Wikipedia gives four justifications for punishment.

Justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.

Of those justifications the first, retribution, is problematic in a predestined world. The criminal could not have not committed the crime, so revenge or retribution loses most of its point.

Image of "Dawn: Luther at Erfurt" wh...

Image of “Dawn: Luther at Erfurt” which depicts Martin Luther discovering the doctrine of Justification by Faith. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, retribution is rolled up into deterrence. If other criminals see what happens to the criminal in question, they will possibly be less likely to commit similar crimes. In other words the reluctance to suffer the consequences becomes part of their character which results in them not doing similar. When the chance to commit a similar crime arises then this factor becomes part of the character and they do not do it.

Similarly the criminal in question will be deterred (one hopes) from committing the crime again. He will hopefully be rehabilitated and the punishment for his current crime will influence him when the possibility of committing a similar crimes turns up. The punishment is in his memory and is a part of his personality and could be a reason for not committing the crime in the future. He may claim, in the future, that he “chose” not to repeat his crime, but in fact he could not chose to do it because of his personality and his memory of his punishment.

"A Dream of Crime & Punishment", eng...

“A Dream of Crime & Punishment”, engraving by J.J. Grandville. As reproduced in “Harper’s Magazine” shortly after Grandville’s death in 1847. “It is the dream of an assasin overcome by remose” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the punishment results in a prison sentence then of course he cannot commit the crime or similar crimes. Wikipedia uses the term “incapacitated” and indeed that is so if he is imprisoned. An execution is a pretty final way of “incapacitating” a criminal and for many justice systems it it the ultimate punishment for severe crimes.

In the past in many countries, the criminal was tortured before execution, a process which horrifies us these days, but which seemed justified at the time. It at least some of these cases the intent was “drive out” evil influences.

Evil Twin

Evil Twin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The past crimes of others and their subsequent treatment, whatever it was, also serves to warn and influence others who might also have otherwise committed similar crimes. So even in a predestined world punishment would have a deterrent effect on others as it will influence others. In fact the only difference between a universe which allows for free will (somehow) and a predestined universe is the idea of “blame”.

The “free will” universe blames the wrongdoer, but the predestined universe doesn’t as the wrongdoer could not do otherwise than he did. There are still reasons for punishment in a deterministic universe in spite of that.

Incompatiblists agree that determinism leaves ...

Incompatiblists agree that determinism leaves no room for free will. As a result, they reject one or both. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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40 Years

Plymouth Valiant 100 of some 40 years ago seen...

Plymouth Valiant 100 of some 40 years ago seen on street in New Orleans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty years, around 14,600 days, 350,400 hours, 21,024,000 minutes, or 1,261,440,000 seconds. In other words around 1.3 gigaseconds. That’s the amount of time that I have been married to my wife, Elizabeth, known to everyone as Matty. I don’t mean to imply that it seems a long time – it doesn’t! Far from it. But it has been a long time, and I am amazed. Firstly because it has been a long time and secondly because we have stuck together for that long.

In that time the earth has travelled 37,600 million kilometres, light from earth or the sun has travelled 40 light years, or 3.8 x 10^14 kilometres. There are around 2,000 known stars within 50 light years of earth, with 133 falling among the brightest 10%, and according to my calculations around half of them are less than 40 light years away. That means that there is little chance that any LGMs will have been blinded by the flash of the photographer’s camera.


Alien2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In that time a lot has happened. We have had three children and shortly after that, moved half way around the world. The kids have grown up and we now have three grandchildren, who are also growing up fast. The youngest has been at school for a year now, and it seem only recently that her mother was just starting school herself. Thankfully the kids have not dispersed too widely and they and the grandkids will be lunching with us tomorrow to celebrate.

I’ve been looking at the things that have happened and changed in that 40 years. Strangely I had thought that the moon landings had not finished when we got married, but in fact there was no overlap. The last moon landing (Apollo 17) happened in 1972, before we were married. (The first landing was in 1969). Weird!

While men have not been to the moon in the last 40 years, many man-made devices have been sent to other planets and even to comets, The Hubble space telescope has sent back amazing photographs of the depths of space and other such telescopes have followed suit.

Eta Carinae captured by the Hubble Space Teles...

Eta Carinae captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest successes in exploration of the solar system has been the Mars Rover Opportunity which has operated on the surface of Mars since 2004. It’s original planned activity period was scheduled to be 90 sols or Martian days (slightly longer than an Earth day). However Opportunity is still functioning and sending back amazing photographs much more than 10 years since it landed.

Many of Opportunity’s photographs and panoramas can be found on the NASA web site, which also contains stunning photographs, both modern and historical, of rocket and shuttle launches. It also includes astronomical photographs taken by many different telescopes and photographs taken on the moon and from orbit. I highly recommend it.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in space.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course many important happenings occurred in the last 40 years. One of the biggest was the rise of the Internet. The birth of the networks that formed the Internet happened in the 1970s, and the term “Internet” was used in a technical document in December 1974, four months before we got married!

Most people spend a lot of time on the Internet using a browser and viewing sites and that aspect of the Internet, originally called “the World Wide Web”, originated in CERN in the late 1980s. At some time a lot later than that I downloaded a copy of the NCSA web server and create a “Hello World” web page. I then pointed a browser at it (probably an early version of Internet Explorer) and up popped my “Hello World” page! At the time I was thrilled and delighted!

Of course not all things that have happened in the last 40 years are so great. According to the WWF the Earth has lost half its wildlife. 40 years ago global warming had not become a topic of concern, although it was first mentioned by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.


Arrhenius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another notable event around 1975 was the first commercial flight of Concorde in 1976. It went out of service in 2003 having failed to become a commercial success. I worked for British Aerospace at one time, though not directly on anything to do with Concorde. I also worked for British Aerospace who made the Olympus engines for the Concordes.

In 1977 the Queen celebrated her celebrated her silver jubilee, and she is still going 40 years later! I don’t remember much of the celebrations but I do remember that it was a big thing at the time!

While searching around for links for this post I came across this useful link from the Sunday Telegraph which lists events from the last 50 years. It’s amazing how many seem to be fairly recent and at the same time a long time ago. The first case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1980, for example. The Vietnam war ended in 1975. The first test tube baby was born in 1978. Her son was conceived naturally and was born in 2006.

So much that we take for granted today was not around when we got married. No Internet as above. No cell phones. According to the Sunday Times list above, the first British mobile phone call was made by the comedian Ernie Wise to Vodafone. The first mobile phones were small bricks and had battery lives which were very short. They were also rare and expensive. Facebook, Twitter and all the other “Social Media” sites were well in the future and the multifunction devices that mobile phones have become were almost unimaginable.

So many things have changed that it is a wonder that anything has lasted. Our marriage has lasted, even though the concept of marriage itself has changed to include same-sex marriage, over the four decades. It seems that even same-sex marriage is becoming less popular, with couples often having children first and getting married later. That still seems odd to me, but it seems to work for many people.

We’ve made it through 40 years while all things have changed around us. I’m proud of that fact and hope that we can continue for many more. But we have a long way to go to beat my parents – they just recently celebrated 70 years of marriage.

Great Observatories' Unique Views of the Milky Way

Great Observatories’ Unique Views of the Milky Way (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Where are all the heroes and heroines?

[I’m posting this early as I will not be able to post tomorrow or Monday as per my schedule]

The Cricket World Cup continues and now we have only the final match left. New Zealand versus Australia. The success of the New Zealand team and the reaction to their semi final win led me to think about heroes.

The saying goes that every one likes a winner, and since the New Zealand team has exceeded many peoples’ expectations, the local media are ecstatic. Most ordinary New Zealanders who would not normally be interested in cricket have been tuning their radios and TV to the match commentary or streaming the matches from the Internet.  Indeed it would be fair to say that the whole country is behind the team.

Interestingly, the New Zealand commentators, who covered the semi final and who were jumping for joy when New Zealand won, were almost as quick to sympathise with the losing South African team. This empathy was probably because it was an amazing game with a breath taking finale, played all the way through in good spirit, and the South African team who so nearly won it called truly be called gallant in defeat.

The match could have gone either way up until the very end, and I think this helped the New Zealand team and the New Zealand public to commiserate with the South Africans. It so nearly was the New Zealand team on the losing end of the match. It was an amazing end, with grown men hugging and grown men crying.

Being a small country New Zealand doesn’t often have sporting heroes or heroines, but it does happen. New Zealand players have gone to Australia the UK, Japan, France and even the US to play their sport, be it soccer, basketball, rugby union or rugby league. New Zealand doesn’t have the funds to pay professional sports persons that these other countries do.

Somehow or other this doesn’t seem to affect the quality of the sports stars in the local sporting arenas. In fact returning players often find it a little difficult to get back into the top level teams on their return from an overseas period of their career.

In New Zealand the public has a curious attitude to top sports persons. If a New Zealander were to meet one of his or her sports idols, he or she would probably as likely offer to buy him or her a drink as ask him or her for an autograph.

New Zealanders expect sports stars to be approachable, and in many cases they are. Because it is a small country, a sizeable number of the fans will have gone to school with them, or lived next door to them, or perhaps worked with them when they were starting out, before they became professional sports persons.

New Zealanders tends to excel in what could be called minor sports. This is probably partially because in the larger countries, the ones in which the sport arose or where it has become very popular the best athletes are attracted to the major sports. When a New Zealander or New Zealand team do succeed in major sports it is front page news ‘back home’.

Even when it is a minor sport (such as Greco-Rona wrestling or lawn bowls) if a New Zealander does well they become well known, at least in New Zealand. New Zealanders realise this full well and wryly comment that something is “world famous in New Zealand“.

English: L & P bottle model in Paeroa, showing...

English: L & P bottle model in Paeroa, showing the label design as used from the 1970s to the 1990s Deutsch: L&P Modellflasche in Paeroa mit dem Label, dass von 1970gern bis 1990gern verwendet wurde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we have the likes of Stephen Adams doing well in American basketball, and the average New Zealand man in the street knows that he plays for Oklahoma City Thunder, and the average New Zealand sports buff could probably tell you what his scores were.

Heroes and heroines have been around since people started to form towns and cities and to write down their histories. Back in the times that the Greeks and Romans held sway in Europe, it is likely that total population of the Earth would have been measured in millions rather than the billions that live on the Earth today. Towns and cities of the time would probably have appear small to modern eyes – Rome is believed to have peaked at around one million people at its peak in the second century of the Common Era.

Roman Infantry Edit

Roman Infantry Edit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the populations were so small compared to today it is likely that the heroes and heroines of the time were known personally to a large part of the population. Since the population was so small the six degrees of separation of the modern world are likely to be reduced to three or four. Admittedly the lines of communication would likely be way slower in the ancient world but Julius Caesar was likely be a friend of a friend of a friend of every person in the world at that time.

English: Map of the Roman Republic in 40 BC af...

English: Map of the Roman Republic in 40 BC after the recent conquests of Julius Caesar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the small population of the time, heroic events would be quickly well known and the heroes and heroines would become household names. Since this would happen mostly by word of mouth, the Chinese Whispers effect would be strong. Intentional and unintentional misunderstandings would mount up and would inflate the story, so that instead of the hero overcoming three others, one at a time, he instead reputedly takes on a dozen all at once.

When you read of Julius Caesar and his legions, I at least get the image of vast armies, but a legion was between 5,000 and 1,500 men. Caesar conquered Gaul with only a few legions, say 10,000 men probably which doesn’t seem very many, but there was little real opposition in numerical terms.

The initials SPQR stood for Senātus Populusque...

The initials SPQR stood for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”). They were emblazoned on the banners of Roman legions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not as if there were a strong national structure to oppose him, as the tribal structure common in those days might extend to a city or two, or a region and Julius Caesar was able to exploit regional rivalries to take control of the region. He of course had to contend with heroes popping up, like Vercingetorix who unified the previous divided Gauls.

Heroes and heroines have only one fate – they win at first (which makes them heroes or heroines), but eventually they lose and then they usually die. Vercingetorix eventually lost to Julius Caesar at the battle of Alesia, and Julius Caesar cemented his hold over Gaul.

English: Monument of Vercingétorix in Alesia (...

English: Monument of Vercingétorix in Alesia (Alise-Sainte-Reine) Deutsch: Denkmal des Vercingétorix in Alesia (Alise-Sainte-Reine) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even Julius Caesar, eventually, lost both his empire and his life, at the hands of his former friends, who briefly became heroes themselves, before quickly losing their lives too.

While modern day sporting heroes and heroines don’t actually die, they eventually suffer defeat and become radio or TV commentators, which may be a worse fate. So I hope that the New Zealand cricket team wins the Cricket World Cup tomorrow, but if they can’t manage it, they have put on an amazing show in getting this far.

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Cricket – bat and ball game

Many young British Pakistanis play cricket for...

Many young British Pakistanis play cricket for recreation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s how Wikipedia describes cricket – as a bat and ball game. Since the Cricket World Cup is currently being staged in Australia and New Zealand, I thought that I would choose cricket as the topic for the week.

The roots of cricket are in England, though it so happens that the mother country of cricket has been eliminated from the Cricket World Cup (CWC). Cricket has spread to a number of other countries as a result of colonial and other influences and 14 teams have been taking part in the 2015 CWC.

List of ICC cricket member nations. Orange mar...

List of ICC cricket member nations. Orange marked countries are test teams, yellow are associate and purple are affiliate member nations. (Note: Certain island nations may not be shown.) For those who may not be able to make out the colours: Shade used for Australia is orange Shade used for United States is yellow Shade used for Mexico is purple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cricket playing nations are either full members of the International Cricket Council or associate or affiliate members. The CWC contestants are the 10 full members and 4 other members who are required to qualify for the tournament. The ‘minnows’ as the associates and affiliates are often referred to rarely trouble the full members in matches, but upsets are not unknown.

Of the bat and ball games, cricket is of the class where a batsman defends a target from a ball thrown (“pitched” or “bowled”) by a player from the other team. Points (referred to as runs) are scored by running from one end of the pitch to the other, or by hitting the ball out of bounds.

Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, the hi...

Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, the highest wicket taker in both Test and ODI forms of cricket bowls to Adam Gilchrist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cricket is similar to baseball and softball and the informal game of rounders in the sense that the members of the batting team take turns ‘at bat’. The target area is a physical target in cricket (“stumps” and “bails”) but is a virtual box in baseball and softball. There is no specific target in rounders, where the ball just has to be hittable by the batter.

Cricket has two “targets” or wickets, and I can’t think of any other bat and ball sport that has two wickets or the equivalent. The wickets are one chain apart in the old Imperial measures, and the person who delivers the ball to the batsman throws or bowls the ball from one wicket to the other. The game switches around after every 6 balls, with a second bowler bowling at the batsman at the other end of the pitch. This is termed an “over” as the supervising official, the umpire, calls “Over” when six balls have be bowled.

English: Wicket, the stumps being hit by a ball

English: Wicket, the stumps being hit by a ball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In informal or backyard cricket it is common to have just one wicket and a single pole (or stump) for the bowler to deliver the ball from. Other rules are ignored or modified as appropriate from the much smaller space available. In recent years, there has been a move to formalise at least some games of backyard or beach cricket and to institute competitions in the formalised code. These are still considered “fun” games though.

There are variants of cricket played in some Pacific Islands, The rules of these variants are also informal, team sizes are variable, and the bat often resembles a war weapon. Teams can contain both men and women and people of all ages. The Wikipedia article mentions that there have been attempts to formalize the rules of this variant of the sport.

The original format of the formal game of cricket is multi-day, multi-innings. Even the Island form of the game runs to several days, but that may be related more to the social nature of island cricket than anything else. As in any formal game the equipment and the uniform is closely specified and in particular the uniform is white – known as “cricket whites”.

The multi-day format is unusual in sports and arises from the fact that each team has eleven players and each may have to have their time at bat twice in a game. Shorter forms are often played at a semi-formal or provincial level, many being completed in one innings in one day. Cricket is not a quick game in terms of time taken, as each batsman may face upwards of one hundred balls. The semi-formal “village green” cricket is a leisurely affair, in spite of the fact that the ball may be bowled at speeds of up to 150kph.

A family playing cricket on the Village Green

A family playing cricket on the Village Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new form of cricket has developed where the number of overs or sets of six balls is restricted to 50 for each team. The uniforms are not restricted to white and some other minor changes have been made to the rules. These changes have led to a more exciting, quicker form of the game and the matches are over in one day. This is the form that is being played for the Cricket World Cup.

There is an even shorter version of the game called Twenty20, which is a fast paced version with only 20 overs per side. Both the 20 over and (slightly less so) 50 over versions of the game result in fast scoring and more excitement than the standard version of the game as teams, both fielders and batsman take a  more highly charged attitude.

Turner slides to prevent a boundary during a T...

Turner slides to prevent a boundary during a Twenty20 Cup match against Gloucestershire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sport is professional at the top level, and the top players are treated as celebrities. Since the sport is international these days players get to play in many countries. In particular many overseas players play in the Indian Premier League, a very rich Twenty20 competition based, as the name implies, in the Indian sub-continent.

The stance of a batsman in cricket is side on, with the bat grounded before the bowler start his delivery and raised backwards in preparation for the stroke. Consequently there are left hand and right batsmen (and bowlers). Since the game has been around there are unique terms for various matters to do with the game.

Collins's batting stance

Collins’s batting stance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, the field positions have traditional names which might seem whimsical. “Silly Mid On” is one of them. It certainly is “silly” as it is close to the batsman in the natural line of a stroke on the on or leg side. The position is intended for a close in catch and is obviously dangerous as the ball is hard, much like a baseball. Some Silly Mid On fielders wear protective helmets and other gear.

One field position that I had not heard of until recently is “Cow Corner”. A fielder at Cow Corner is in much the same line from the bat as Silly Mid On, but much further away, almost on the edge of the field (the “boundary”). The name seemly relates to the rustic roots of the game where the field was indeed a field or paddock that had to be cleared of livestock before a game could commence.

Of course, the cattle would most likely have left deposits behind them which could trouble the fielders during the game.




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