The Negative Universe


Dandelion(negative) (Photo credit: tanakawho)


If cosmologists are to be believed the Universe came from nothing and is likely to return to nothing. This is odd as there seems to be an awful lot of it! There are between ten to the power 78 and ten to the power 82 atoms in the observable universe, according to some estimates. There’s also a huge amount of energy out there in the universe, and as Einstein said, this is equivalent to matter, according to his famous equation.

Maxwell's Equations

Maxwell’s Equations (Photo credit: DJOtaku)


It is likely that the enormous amount of matter and energy that we see out there is balanced by an equivalent amount of “negative” matter and energy somehow. “Negative” is in scare quotes because it may not describe what is actually going on. Anyway, the negative matter and energy may be incorporated into this universe somehow, which means that on average half the universe is this sort of energy. We can’t see it anywhere so far as I know, so it is a bit of a puzzle.

Large Format Doha Panorama Portra 400

Large Format Doha Panorama Portra 400 (Photo credit: Doha Sam)

We can see evidence everywhere for “normal” matter and energy, and we should be able to see evidence of “negative” matter if it is anywhere near us. As I understand it, “negative” matter would behave differently to “normal” in various ways and should be detectable. I’m not sure in what ways it would be different – I can guess that there could be a gravitational attraction between particles of “negative” matter, just as there is between particles of “normal” matter, but there could be a gravitational repulsion between “negative” matter and “normal” matter for example.

Galaxy NGC 720 (NASA, Chandra, 10/22/02)

Galaxy NGC 720 (NASA, Chandra, 10/22/02) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

But my ignorance is almost total. I do believe it is true that “negative” matter should be detectable.) Since we can’t see or detect “negative” matter within our locality (ie “the observable universe“) it may be grouped elsewhere in the universe. If so, it may not have any observable effect in our neck of the woods, but inevitable it will have an effect at some time in the astronomical future.

Español: es la misma imagen que aparece en el ...

Español: es la misma imagen que aparece en el articulo en ingles: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reason that I say this is that the universe doesn’t seem to be expanding faster than the speed of light so any effect such as (possibly) gravity which does appear to have a “speed of light” effect will eventually affect our corner of the universe. But the situation is complex, and as the Wikipedia article says,

Due to the non-intuitive nature of the subject and what has been described by some as “careless” choices of wording, certain descriptions of the metric expansion of space and the misconceptions to which such descriptions can lead are an ongoing subject of discussion in the realm of pedagogy and communication of scientific concepts.

In other words, there are many misconceptions and misinterpretations around this topic. However any effect of the possible existence of “negative” matter on our little neck of the universe is likely to be felt a long time in the future, even on a cosmological time scale, I feel. “Negative” matter could have created a negative universe, I guess, which mirrors this universe.

Photo of a printout of the Wikipedia Copyleft ...

Photo of a printout of the Wikipedia Copyleft reflection in mirror, with pen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a negative universe at least one dimension would be reversed but all other dimension would have the same polarity as our universe. If an odd number of dimensions were reversed, would all but one cancel out? I’m not sure but a cursory mathematical examination would indicate that this would not be so, but I lack the time to explore the concept in depth.


Dimensions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our universe things tend to a state of disorder. If one partition of a closed system contains all the matter (in the simplest case, as a gas) and the partition is removed then eventually the matter is eventually dispersed through the whole system. In a negative universe, possibly the opposite would apply – gas dispersed through a system could tend to bunch up in one part of the system. Maxwell’s demon could watch benignly without lifting a finger.

Demonio Maxwell 2

Demonio Maxwell 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our view of this is that it is extremely unlikely – would a glass spontaneously rise from the floor, gathering the scattered wine and land on the table complete with wine? Perhaps this is a parochial view, only true in our universe. In some alternate universe, this may be the normality – entropy may tend to decrease, order may tend to increase. Such an entropy twin may simple be the time reversed twin of the original universe. Or the original universe perceived from a time reversed perspective.

The Grand Canyon Time-Zero Project

The Grand Canyon Time-Zero Project (Photo credit: futurowoman)

If the universe sprung out of nothing, then the sum of the universe is zero. Any object has its anti-object. Any event has its anti-event. Maybe the universe has a partner, an anti-universe if you like, or even a mirror universe. Time in our universe runs from the zero moment into the positive future. In a mirror universe would presumably (and debatably) run in the opposite direction from the zero moment and all spacial dimensions would be reversed.


Plus-Reversed,-1960 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This would correspond to a point reflection in time and space, which may or may not be the same as a rotation in time and space. I’m not sure. Some of complexities can be seen in this Wikipedia article on “parity”. In particular some interactions of elementary particles may display chirality, which means that they come in left and right handed versions, like gloves or shoes. All of the above means that if a person were to be point reflected into an anti-universe and all the elementary particles of his body were switched with their anti-particles, there may be no way for the person to tell that the switch had occurred.

different flowers from same plant

different flowers from same plant (Photo credit: ghedo)

Sure, time would be reversed, but so would literally everything else, so a left-handed glove would appear, in the point reflected world, to still be a left-handed glove even though, if we could see the glove it would appear to us, from our point of view to be right-handed. Of course I’ve assumed for much of the above that the reflection that transforms a universe to its anti-universe is a point reflection.

Axial chirality

Axial chirality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In mathematical terms that means that all variables are reversed. That is x is replaced by -x, y by -y, z by -z and so on. It may be that the reflection may be in a line and the x dimension stays the same while the others are negated. Or it may be a reflection in a plane (a mirror reflection) where 2 dimensions are unchanged. Or it may be a reflection in a higher number of dimensions.

English: Upper Yosemite fall with reflection

English: Upper Yosemite fall with reflection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you can see, the subject is complex and I’ve not got my head around it (obviously!), but I believe that if we were switched into the anti-universe (including all out particles) it would not look any different from this universe. In fact we would probably find ourselves discussing our anti-universe, which would be our original universe. In fact it would not matter which universe we called “the original” because they both would have come into existence at the same time and there would be no meaning to the term “original”.

A face.. (the original OMG Wall)

A face.. (the original OMG Wall) (Photo credit: eworm)


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"Father! Father! / Tell me what ails thee...

“Father! Father! / Tell me what ails thee? / With dismay thou art filling thy child!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, wow, drat and other words of dismay. I haven’t thought of a topic for this week and it is time to write my post. Time to get started.

OK, people seem to like classifying things. This can be so that they can find one item in a large collection of things, or it may be simply a means of bolstering prejudices that they might have. Or any of a myriad number of other reasons.

Garbage Can

Garbage Can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When faced with a profusion of things, the human impulse is to classify them. One of the most famous classification systems is that of Carl Linnaeus, whose classification system is used for the not so trivial task of classifying all living things. His system, with modifications is still the basis for biological classification of all organisms.

Digitally improved version of Alexander Roslin...

Digitally improved version of Alexander Roslin’s painting of Carl von Linné. This particular version has had dust and missing specs of paint deleted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Linnaeus started his classification, it is likely that partial schemes would likely have been in place to classify small groups of organisms, but Linnaeus extended this to all organisms, in an organised way. When someone states that mankind’s scientific name is “Homo Sapiens”, he or she is using the Linnaeus system, at least partially.

“Homo” represents mankind’s Genus, and “Sapiens” is mankind’s  Species, but the species is merely a leaf on the classification tree, which is rooted in the Animalia Kingdom, and descends through Phylum, Class, Order, Family, and Tribe, (which I’m not going to list here) and finally to the Genus and Species.

Darwin's tree of life

Darwin’s tree of life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Linnaeus’ system is still in use today, but the emphasis has changed somewhat. When he was doing his work, the classification was based on appearance, and while that is often a good guide to an organism’s place in nature, emphasis has now shifted to the genetic make up of organisms to determine their correct classification.

Agapornis phylogeny

Agapornis phylogeny (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has sometimes resulted in whole chunks of the classification tree being moved from one branch to another as knowledge of the genetics of the organisms has come to light. It is obvious that if two organisms have similar genetic make ups, then they must be closely related. Also, it implies that they almost certainly have a common ancestor, and such an ancestor is also fitted into the tree of life and given a species name.

Horned Dinosaur Phylogeny

Horned Dinosaur Phylogeny (Photo credit: Scott Wurzel)

This adds a time dimension to the genetic tree, turning it from a static representation of living organisms into a dynamic picture of all life over all time. The tree of life is evolving.

Another great classification system is the Dewey Decimal Classification system, a proprietary library classification system used to classify books. Every book in a library is assigned a number, which in most cases would not be unique. The number consists of two parts separated by a period (‘.’). Most library users would be aware of the system, and will have used it to locate books.

Spine Books Label show Call Number for Dewey D...

Spine Books Label show Call Number for Dewey Decimal Classification. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the system can classify books in great detail, merely by extending the number after the period to many decimal points, most libraries classify their books in much less detail, using only two or three digits as a suffix. This results in groups of books receiving the same number, with the books in a group sharing a common topic, while differing in detail.

get to know the dewey decimal system

get to know the dewey decimal system (Photo credit: susannaryan)

For instance a particular number may be assigned by the library whose topic might be the geography of the country of Bolivia. (The actual number is 918.4). The library might have only one or two books on the subject of the country of Bolivia, so that number is sufficient to locate any of them.

In the country of Bolivia itself, however, there will almost certainly be many more books on the topic and the Dewey Decimal Classification almost certainly contains more detailed classification numbers which would have to be used in Bolivia libraries to classify the geography books. (I’ve not checked this “factoid” but it is probably true).

Shelf of Books on South America

Shelf of Books on South America (Photo credit: pkdon50)

So the Dewey Decimal Classification system can be hair-splittingly  accurate or broadly general in its application and this flexibility is ideal for libraries. Sometime libraries use a sort of hybrid system, probably driven by the need for a sub-classification where some books have been already more generally classified, where some books are classified as “something.12″ and other books are classified as “something.123″. In most cases this inconsistency doesn’t matter.

Topographic map of Bolivia. Created with GMT f...

Topographic map of Bolivia. Created with GMT from public domain GLOBE data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just realised on writing that, that it may not be inconsistency at all. Instead the “something.123″ books may be more specific than the “something.12″ books, which would therefore be more general.

An obvious difficulty with the Dewey Decimal Classification system is that there is no cross-reference possible. In the Bolivia example, a book may cover the topic of the geographic causes of distribution of various related Bolivian species of some organism or other. Is this to be classified as biology and be assigned to a class in the 500s (Pure Science), or should it be classified as geography and assigned to a class in the 900s?


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nowadays one can do a computer search and come up with a bunch of numbers that fit the topic that is being researched. In the days before computers there were card-based “Topic Catalogs” which would also provide the searcher with a bunch of numbers. The trouble is, many searches would result in multiple numbers, either as a result of a card search or a computer search.  One would then have to go to several locations to decide if the required topic was covered by this Dewey Decimal Classification number or one of the others. I make it sound bad, but really, it wasn’t, and the issue is more a user confusion about what was covered by each topic in the system rather than an issue with the system itself.

Banner for Wikipedia:WikiProject Lists of topics

Banner for Wikipedia:WikiProject Lists of topics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A computer search (on Google for example) will provide a list of possible references to a search term, but as anyone has used a computer search is aware, a search term can refer to many topics. A search for the word Socrates gave me a list including a Wikipedia article on the philosopher himself, a list of quotes taken from his work, a biography of the philosopher and a site where his philosophies could be discussed. And that is just the first four items out of an estimated 6 million or so.


Google (Photo credit: warrantedarrest)

Classification of things seems to be a trait of humans. I think that we classify things to simplify things for ourselves, to make it easy to identify threats and possibilities. As such, it is probably an inherited trait possessed by at least the more developed organisms on the planet. However classification can add complexity if one is searching for something, so it is something of a trade off.


google_logo (Photo credit: keso)

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Ethics and Morals – the Ten Commandments

Ethics and Morals: Timeless and Universal?

Ethics and Morals: Timeless and Universal? (Photo credit: stephenccwu)

I’ve been thinking about ethics and morals over the past week, as preparation of a sort for writing this post. I’m not quite sure what got me started on this topic in the first place though. It would be more accurate to say that it is the basis for ethics and morality is what is interests me.

Religious people don’t have an issue, really, because their religion sets the rules for interactions with others, and any such rule is inviolate because it is supposedly handed to humans by “the powers that be”. The rule base is generally given as the word of god.

Sexta/Viernes/Friday-POSER-Deus - Dios - God

Sexta/Viernes/Friday-POSER-Deus – Dios – God (Photo credit: Caio Basilio)

Laws underscore ethics and morals, as they define what should happen if a person offends against another or the state or establishment. If it is not ethical to steal from another, what should be done? A law defines both the crime and often the punishment.

In the past, when religion had total control of peoples’ lives the religious establishment, the priests or other religious officials generally administered the secular laws and at the same time administered religious matters. In fact there was little difference.

Priest reading

Priest reading (Photo credit: Matthew Almon Roth)

The laws of those times, at least in England and Europe and probably in most of the rest of the world reflected a vengeful deity. The basic ethic was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth“, with the added spice of an implication of sin.

English: Coat of Arms of His Eminence Jaime Ca...

English: Coat of Arms of His Eminence Jaime Cardinal Sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sin is an offence against god, so trumps the mere earthly transgression of the theft or whatever itself, resulting in penalties which would seem far too harsh in this day and age. For instance amputation for theft, deportation, banishment, or death for similar offences was common. Apart from the punishment of the perpetrator, a reason for the severity of the sentences was intended to underline the power of the establishment and to deter others from committing similar crimes.

Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments (Photo credit: glen edelson)

In Christian and Jewish religions there are the Ten Commandments (or Sayings in Judaism). To Christians they are the ten commands of God, and in Judaism they are ten of 613 commandments of God.

Pomegranate heart- corazon de granada

Pomegranate heart- corazon de granada (Photo credit: LifeAsIPictured)

There are three parts to the Ten Commandments.

Firstly, there are four commandments relating to God. From an ethical point of view, if you believed that God was overseeing your life, then you had better do whatever you could to make him happy. A good start is to believe in Him, and then to keep Him happy by worshipping him in appropriate ways.

Detaill of page 130 in section 'Notes to Kent'...

Detaill of page 130 in section ‘Notes to Kent’ of Notes on the churches in the counties of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey The image is a reproduction of a foundation stone of the Plaxtol, ‘abbreviated’ with marks to superficially read ‘This church was built for the worship of God. Anno Domini 1649 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly, there is a commandment relating to parents and teachers, in other words, those with authority over one. Again, it makes sense to keep those in authority happy.

Finally, there are five commandments relating to relationships with other people, things such as stealing from them, sleeping with their wife and daughters and so on.

Don't Steal My Coat

Don’t Steal My Coat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside of the Ten Commandments, it appears that the early Israelites had some ethical beliefs involving animals, as the tale of Balaam’s donkey reveals. Balaam’s donkey complains in a very human way expressing her hurt at Balaam’s treatment of her, and Balaam apologises to her.

Rembrandt's Balaam and his Ass

Rembrandt’s Balaam and his Ass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So a religious person has a basis for his assessment of what is right and wrong from the above framework. It was considered right to follow the teachings of the Ten Commandments, and this was reinforced by the society of the time.

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, painting by Rembrandt (1659) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As with all ethical frameworks, there are times when the framework doesn’t quite seem to fit the situation. When you are starving could it be wrong to steal a loaf of bread, particularly if the bread in question will otherwise go to waste? When your family is starving, could it be wrong to steal to feed them? Obviously if the rules are applied strictly it IS wrong, and often, in the times when religion was paramount, they often were.

Bread Thief

Bread Thief (Photo credit: frankdouwes)

Of course, those who do not have a belief in a deity can still be guided by the Ten Commandments, if they are in fact relevant to them. So let’s have a look at the Ten Commandments from a secular point of view.

Obviously, the four commandments relating to God, don’t apply? Or do they? In dealing with religious people, a non-religious person should be aware of and make allowances for the non-religious person’s belief, so long as they don’t cause a conflict with the non-religious person’s belief. For instance a non-religious person may happily attend a wedding but may object to any attempt to indoctrinate his children with religious beliefs through the child’s schools.

Funny Religious Sticker

Funny Religious Sticker (Photo credit: Amarand Agasi)

An unquestioning following of the fifth commandment may also conflict with a non-religious person’s ethical beliefs. While a non-religious person may accept the authority of the government and of the police, he or she might disagree with the correctness of their actions. Occasionally, though, a non-religious person will disagree with the authorities so much that he or she will rebel against them.

Nobody expects... The Spanish Inquisition!

Nobody expects… The Spanish Inquisition! (Photo credit: Ochre Jelly)

The rest of the commandments deal with relationships with other people, and a non-religious person may well believe that these are ethically correct instructions. They describe how a person might want others to behave towards them, so ethically that is how a person should treat others.

English: Golden Rule, Smithy Brow, Ambleside L...

English: Golden Rule, Smithy Brow, Ambleside Lovely old traditional pub in Ambleside, just across from the main car park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This ethical principle, of “do as you would be done by”, has a long history and is sometimes known as “the Golden Rule“. There is a second part to this principle which “do NOT treat others in a way that you would not like to be treated”. This principle is the basis for the two characters,  Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, from the story “The Water-Babies” by Charles Kingsley.

Cover of "The Water-Babies (Books of Wond...

Cover of The Water-Babies (Books of Wonder)

The Golden Rule seems to be a very good basis for a set of ethical rules. Of course it is too simple to explicitly and accurately cover every eventuality, as the example above of the starving family demonstrates. It also does not make allowance for differences in beliefs, and there are others issues with it, but it can be seen that it is implied in the Ten Commandments.

English: "Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid." Il...

English: “Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.” Illustration for Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies in charcoal, water, and oil. (New York : Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916), p. 236. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ten Commandments themselves inherit the issues of the Golden Rule. As given, one should not harm another person, but what if you need to harm someone to save their life? Surgeons do this every day, but one can extend this to the killing of someone. Few people would argue that a policeman who guns down someone on a killing spree, as happens fairly often these days, has acted unethically.

Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments and through them the Golden Rule, provide useful hints and guidelines to good ethical behaviour, even for a non-believer.

Scan of illustration in The water-babies: a fa...

Scan of illustration in The water-babies: a fairy tale for a land-baby (1915) Boston: Houghton Mifflin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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Time waits for no man

time travel

time travel (Photo credit: flyzipper)

Time is an odd thing. We say it passes, but it sometimes feels more like we are travelling through. As the old joke goes, we all travel through time – at a rate of one second per second.

While that might bring a smile, it does raise a question about time travel, because if one travels through time, one presumably travels through it at some rate or other, say ten years per minute. The problem with that it is that we are measuring a rate, which is a change of some variable with respect to another, but in this case we are measuring the rate of change of time with respect to time as well.

English: Acceleration as derivative of velocit...

English: Acceleration as derivative of velocity along trajectory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time intervals over which the traveller is passing are measured in the usual way by a clock, but how does the traveller measure his time by? He could carry a clock with him, which he could then use to estimate his progress along the standard time scale. In other words the time traveller would somehow have to carry his own time scale with him which is different to the usual time scale.

Illustration of a light cone, based on Image:L...

Illustration of a light cone, based on Image:Light cone.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Einstein’s Special Relativity shows that, in a way, we do carry our own time frames around with us, and if we are in motion relative to some other frame then time passes differently the two frames.  Of course, to simply travel in time, we would not want to travel in space, so we can’t use Special Relativity to allow us to use a different time frame, so far as I can see.

Also, we can only travel forward in time by using this loophole. No matter how fast we move relative to someone else, we both move forward in time, so we can’t use Special Relativity to go back in time and kill dear old Grandad.

The Grandfather Paradox

The Grandfather Paradox (Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold)

Einstein’s General Relativity considers that space-time (the conjunction of space and time) possesses curvature, and some theories use this to allow backwards time travel. However these solutions produce “closed time-like curves” which is not so much time travel as a time loop, perhaps like the loop in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray’s character repeatedly awakes to the same day.

groundhog day!

groundhog day! (Photo credit: NapaneeGal)

It appears that we need to look further for some way to travel in time. If we can’t use current physics, we will need to consider something more “science fiction” than modern physics. Of course science fiction time travellers don’t seem to explain their travels in more than a cursory way, because, after all, the mechanism is only secondary to the story line.

Time Machine Clockwork

Time Machine Clockwork (Photo credit: Pierre J.)

Two different possible mechanisms spring to mind.

Firstly, one way is to assume a sort of parallel world. A time traveller can enter this parallel world from any point in time and re-enter the standard universe at a different point, earlier or later in time. The traveller travels in time by analogously travelling in space in a world which has its own space-time with one of its space dimensions parallel to the conventional world’s time dimension.

parallel worlds

parallel worlds (Photo credit: aloshbennett)

Secondly, the author can conjecture a viciously curved space-time so that the characters can, at certain locations, move from one part of space-time to another part of time which is either earlier or later in the time dimension. Typically the character will “step sideways” or something to jump between times, either with the help of a machine or maybe not.


HELP ME HELP MYSELF! (Photo credit: eyewashdesign: A. Golden)

One such tale of the second sort is “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A Heinlein, is which the main character passes through a portal to a distant future, only to entangle himself with later (and, relatively, earlier) versions of himself. He encounters a mysterious character who identifies himself as “Diktor”.   I’ll leave it there, as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet.

By His Bootstraps

By His Bootstraps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An example of the first sort is “The Corridors of Time” by Poul Anderson, where the main character is recruited into a war raging up and down the “corridors of time”.

Most stories, however, don’t specify in more than a cursory way the physics that is supposedly employed by the time traveller.

Train travel

Train travel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The effects of time travel are what is explored by these stories. If the traveller goes back in time he or she must interact with the world at the earlier time from when he started. There are time stories in which the traveller changes things so the state of the future time from which he can is changed.

Future World 2012 (Explored)

Future World 2012 (Explored) (Photo credit: Scottwdw)

This is the premise behind the Terminator series of films, where the Cyborg assassin (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the mother of John  Connor, the leader of the rebellion against the killer machines. Obviously, in the future from which the Terminator comes, John Connor is born so the Terminator is trying to change the future from which he comes.

The Terminator

The Terminator (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

The obvious paradox here is that the Terminator risks changing the future into one in which he was never created. In which case he would not be able to come back in time to kill Sarah Connor.

The other sort of time travel story treats time as if it were immutable. Any events that happen are eventually shown to have logically been the consequence of the time travel in the first place. For instance, the mysterious stranger on the street turns out to be the time traveller, keeping an eye on the earlier version of himself. All is explained so that the stream of events is logical both from the time sequential point of view and also from the point of view of the traveller. The aforementioned “By His Bootstraps” is a story of this sort.

The Mysterious Stranger

The Mysterious Stranger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it possible that events in the past could have changed? We would not know it! As far as we would be concerned the past event would have have always happened, since there would be a temporal progression from the past event to our current time. Of course the language is tricky here, as it does not handle such matters as changes to the past.

Einstein's Theory Fights Off Challengers (NASA...

Einstein’s Theory Fights Off Challengers (NASA, Chandra, 04/14/10) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

To use the physicists’ favourite analogy of a rubber sheet, if time is considered to be along one dimension of the sheet, and space along the other, then an event which changes the past is like someone pulling a point on the sheet to one side, which affects all the points from both the future and the past of the point which has been moved. But the sheet itself remains intact.

Rubber sheet undergone drying in smoke. Three ...

Rubber sheet undergone drying in smoke. Three versions are there in the picture. 1. Fresh sheet. 2. Little dried in sun light. 3. Dried in smoke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I think that this scenario is unlikely. There doesn’t seem (at the present time) any physical mechanism by which time travel could be achieved, and even though it appears that time travel is logically possible (under the sort of scenario as in “By His Bootstraps”) in a deterministic universe, the simplest conclusion is that time travel is most likely unachievable in this universe.

A "jumpgate" of the X Universe, part...

A “jumpgate” of the X Universe, part of a space-travel network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)





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English: My parents.

English: My parents. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). No, not *my* parents. The artist’s parents!

Most people become parents at some time or other, and this is still true in spite of a supposed trend to childlessness in more couples. It is an ancient joke that the childless, in particular, the childless who do intend to have children at some time, don’t know how fundamentally life will change for them when they have children.

Father with child

Father with child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Childless couples, while not being selfish per se, are only responsible primarily for each other. Of course they are responsible for relationships with relatives and friends, but to such outsiders they appear as a single entity – John-and-Mary, Peter-and-Joanne, or maybe Mark-and-Andrew, or Lucy-and-Anna.

They become atomic, like the electron and proton of a hydrogen atom. We can’t press that analogy too far of course, as electrons tend to get shared around in compounds and that sort of relationship doesn’t work too well with humans.

Eadweard Muybridge's Phenakistoscope: A Couple...

Eadweard Muybridge’s Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child comes along, by natural methods, or by adoption, or by donor, or by less formal methods in some societies, everything changes. No longer is the prime focus of the relationship each other, but is now the third person.

Young couple with baby.

Young couple with baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The parents quickly become the support structure for the child, and the view of the world is now that they are ‘parents’ and not a ‘couple’. In the view of the world, the child’s needs are paramount. At parent-teacher meetings the sole topic is what is good for the child. Schools send notices to parents demanding money with menaces – there’s no softer way to put it – so that the child gets the laptop, the sports gear, the musical instrument that the child absolutely needs according to the school.

English: Three Children in the courtyard of Th...

English: Three Children in the courtyard of The Druk White Lotus School Shey, Ladakh. Русский: Трое детей во дворе Драконовой школы Белого Лотоса в Шей, Ладакх, на севере Индии. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the initial shock, and it is a big shock, a world-shaking shock, most parents adapt. Babies are designed to be cute after all. Super cute, so that the mechanics of nappies and feeding, the deprivation of sleep, and well, the loss of an independent life have their compensations.

There is almost certainly something instinctual here, some urge to protect one’s offspring, or indeed any small cute creature. How else can it be explained that couples allow their whole lives to be derailed by the arrival of a child?

English: Old School, Liversedge. The former Na...

English: Old School, Liversedge. The former National School is behind the photographer, the other side of Halifax Road (and being renovated at present), so it was surprising to find an ‘Old School’ next to the Town Hall. Possibly it was a small Board School to provide for children of parents who were not in the C of E (the National Schools became Church Schools, of course). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t overemphasise the oddness of this. Leaving aside the fact that couples don’t know in advance how world-shattering the change is, couples in the main seem to embrace the change once it happens. Many women plan to go back to work after the first few months have passed, and a significant number fail to do so, even in this day and age.

Parents at the Art and Crafts Exhibition at th...

Parents at the Art and Crafts Exhibition at the Parent Teachers Meeting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you talk to someone with a new baby, well after the first few tumultuous months anyway, it is usually a bit like switching on a light. Parents trumpet the amazing achievements of their children as if no other child has crawled, walked or said “Da-da” in the history of the human race. Prior to that point sleep deprivation means that any communication is difficult in the extreme.

English: Group portrait of the Maryborough Gir...

English: Group portrait of the Maryborough Girls Grammar School cricket team, 1915. The girls are in uniform, wearing shirts, striped ties and skirts. The group poses on the lawn in front of a school building and some other girls can be seen in the background. The back row stands and one of the girls is holding a cricket ball.The middle row sits in chairs and one of the girls holds a cricket bat. The front row sits on the ground and one of the girls wears cricket pads and has a bat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prior to the child’s arrival the pairs major preoccupation is strongly with each other. Of course pair bonds vary in intensity, but in couples the bond is usually strongly couple-centric. When the baby comes along, their major preoccupation is intensely with the child. In the first few months the child will be the topic of almost all conversation, except for the essentials of daily living.

A woman breastfeeding an infant.

A woman breastfeeding an infant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a few months, the child quickly starts to give back some of the attention. In fact most parents believe (as I do) that interaction between child and parents starts pretty much from birth, but the interaction between child and parents deepens as the child develops in the first few months.

original National Geographic article A BEDOUIN...

original National Geographic article A BEDOUIN MOTHER AND CHILD. The father of this little nomad may be a warlike bandit with a cloudy notion of property rights and other details of the civilized code; his mother a simple daughter of the desert with a childish curiosity and fondness for gaudy trinkets, but her babe has the divine heritage of mother love as truly as the most fortunate child of our own land. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Call it love, because that is what it is. It begins right after birth, and grows as the child learns to react to the parents, the feeding, the changing, the cuddles, the kisses. I believe that animals, at least those that bring up their young, in some ways feel for their offspring in the same way as humans. Heck, let’s just say it – animals that bring up their young must surely feel love, in a sense, for their young.

Indian Rhinoceros at San Diego Zoo's Wild Anim...

Indian Rhinoceros at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in Escondido, CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly the higher animals do seem to feel something, as ape mothers carry around dead young, and elephants appear to grieve over their dead calves. Dolphins have been seen carrying their dead calves.

Baby bottlenose dolphin shannonry point 2006

Baby bottlenose dolphin shannonry point 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having survived the culture shock of the birth parents usually embrace the role. They pretty much dedicate their lives to their children, and if they are thoughtful people, will recognise why their own parents behaved the way that they did. Having railed at the restrictions put on them by their parents, they find themselves imposing similar restrictions on their children.

Indeed often they find themselves using the exact same phrases as their parents. It can be a great shock to realise that you are turning into your parents and that they turn out to have been right, justified and after all, reasonable. How did that happen?

Parents with child Statue, Hrobákova street, P...

Parents with child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In most cases parents quickly come to terms with their somewhat subordinate role, which is at times infuriating, frustrating and drives parents to the edge of despair. It is also immensely rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable. Parents feel more pride when their child achieves a milestone like learning to walk than they ever felt over any of their own achievements.

If their children shows promise at any sport or academic achievement a parent’s pride is immense. This extends to at least the second generation, as I can attest. It’s not that a parent’s life is subsumed by their role in bringing up their children, but child rearing certainly causes some of a parents activities to take a back seat for a while.

English: Kindergarten kids and parents on the ...

English: Kindergarten kids and parents on the back of a truck on Norway’s constitution day. ‪Norsk (nynorsk)‬: Barnehageungar og foreldre bak på ein lastebil 17. mai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a parent is so inclined the child can be incorporated into the parent’s preferred recreational activity, so we see parents jogging with purpose-built strollers or pushchairs, and children being carried in backpacks. Children may play in the crèches of educational institutions while one of their parents continues their studies.

Most people go into parenthood not knowing how their lives will be wrenched into a different course by becoming parents. Most parents quickly come to terms with the enormous shift in the emphasis of their lives, and most would not go back to pre-parenthood if given the choice. Parenthood is that rewarding.

Portrait of a married couple and their child b...

Portrait of a married couple and their child by Gerrit Donck. Oil on canvas, 65 x 48 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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The Start of New Year

an old post card

an old post card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to sources on the Internet, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere occurs at 10:51 am UT on 21 June (this year, 2014). That translates to 10:51 pm in New Zealand. Just as in the Northern Hemisphere the start of the year corresponds roughly to the winter solstice  there, I like to think that the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere corresponds to the start of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. I don’t think that I would get much support to the start of the year officially changed, though!

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical)...

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the south and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year can be divided into halves by the solstices, the winter solstice marking the sun’s most negative elevation with respect to the South Astronomical Pole since the previous June. From that moment in time the sun starts to move higher into the sky until, at or around 21 December, when the summer solstice occurs.

Midway between the solstices falls a time when the day and night are roughly equal in length. Around this time the sun crosses the celestial equator, and this time is called an equinox. There are two in the year, one when the sun is apparently moving south in the sky (the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere) and one when it is moving north in the sky (the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere).

The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Ear...

The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Earth : The green Sun is the one of the vernal equinox (march), it is followed by a summer solstice Sun. Then automn equinox and winter solstice. The ground plane (latitude 50°N) is green, the rotating ecliptic plane is blue. Also represented are the celestial equator, the two tropics and the rotation axis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these quarter points of the year is or was celebrated with a festival of some sort, some of which, particularly the winter solstice were supposedly characterised by “unrestrained revelry“. The summer solstice was comparatively restrained, the vernal equinox was a celebration of new growth, and the autumnal equinox was a harvest festival, a gathering in and celebration of bounty produced by the year’s hard work.

What I wasn’t aware of is that there were other events called “Cross Quarter moments”. These are moments halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, and they are known as Embolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain. The Cross Quarter moments. the solstices and the equinoxes are set out in order for 2014 in the chart referenced here.

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals...

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals and Quarter Festivals, Neopagan holidays: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the Cross Quarter moments I have heard of, Beltane and Samhain. Beltane falls between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and is roughly at the beginning of May, so corresponds roughly with May Day. It is astronomically the beginning of summer, but seasonal lag means that the season starts a little later than this.

English: Beer brewed during the night of Samha...

English: Beer brewed during the night of Samhain. Français : Bière brassée pendant la nuit de Samain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children (usually girls) still dance around the maypole or maytree, but few of them, and probably few of the adults have any idea of the origins of this ritual. Although it probably is related to Beltane or the start of summer, the significance and symbolism of the maypole is still debated. Some of the possible suggestions seem dubious and far-fetched, and I don’t think that is wrong to suggest that they reflect the prejudices of the people that make them. In particular it appears that Puritan Christians may have over-emphasised some aspects of the dance and celebration to argue for its banning.

English: Dance around the maypole during the M...

English: Dance around the maypole during the Midsummer celebration, in Åmmeberg, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morris dancing is also associated with a spring festival, usually Whitsun. It may possibly have been associated with Beltrane, but I don’t know the history of morris dancing, Whitsun and Beltrane or spring festivals in general well enough to assert this. There is a long tradition of ancient non-Christian rituals being adopted and given a Christian slant, so this may be possible.

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds o...

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Samhain also has a long history and probably pre-dates Christianity. It is associated with the beginning of winter and marks the point where all crops are gathered and animals prepared for winter. Once again the Christian church has adopted the festival and the roots of “harvest festivals” are to be found in Samhain’s pre-Christian traditions.

English: A Donjari float used in Saijo's fall ...

English: A Donjari float used in Saijo’s fall harvest festival. I took this photo in October 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian church adopted the festival as All Saints (Hallows) Eve or Halloween. I note from the Wikipedia article that I linked to that some people consider that Halloween has no relationship with Samhain, but considering the similarities of the two traditions which happen at the same time of the year, I think that this seems unlikely.


Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bonfires form a great part of the Samhain festival, maybe as an attempt to ward off the coming darkness of winter. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there are still “celebrations” on 5 November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day. An effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt on a bonfire, in spite of the fact that Guy Fawkes was actually hanged.

All of the example above refer to the “Gaelic versions” of the various dates and festivals. It’s a bit simplistic to refer to a single “Gaelic version” as the dates and festivals have, naturally, changed over the years. Other cultures of course have their own versions of the various festivals. In the Tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn the sun is overhead at least once in the year, an obvious time for a festival!

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we have just passed the winter solstice, we can look forward to longer days and shorter nights from now until the summer solstice, which for us in the Southern Hemisphere comes around 21 December. So far this year winter has been fairly mild and a little wet. As we move towards the vernal equinox we still have the bulk of winter to come, as the astronomical year does not match the climatic year because of the seasonal lag.

English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerse...

English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerset. The most peaceful place on earth created from worked-out peat diggings. Excellent wetland habitat with characteristic reed beds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless it is a time to look forward and one can understand why the winter solstice is a such a time. It is a time of feasting, of using up some of the stores put away at the time of the autumnal equinox, the salted beef and cured hams. It is a time to relax, for mending and repairing, and for staying out of the weather as much as possible, as the weather of winter means that essential tasks only will be undertaken and the rush of springtime is still ahead. While the end of winter may bring shortages , it is still near the beginning and the stores are still full.

Russian Celebration Zakuski

Russian Celebration Zakuski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




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Is “schooling” an education?


School (Photo credit: Krzysztof Pacholak)

Well, schooling should be an education. It should prepare the pupil for life. has this as a prime definition of education:

The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgement, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for life.

Schooling doesn’t always do this – Greek history is probably of little use to a car mechanic and scientists are only interested in Greek history in so far as it has cool cast list of names and an alphabet from which they can plunder names for obscure fundamental particles or asteroids.

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on ...

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on its side towards the opposite end.(greyscale) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arguably, though, Greek history is a fascinating window into an early culture, and studying events in Greek history can provide insights into contemporary society and while it may not be of obvious direct benefit to the mechanic and the scientist, such studies can inform sociologists, political studies specialists and many others, and it is worth remembering that mathematics, science, logic, philosophy, politics and many other fields of human endeavour have their roots in ancient Greece.

Temple Statue of Poseidon

Temple Statue of Poseidon (Photo credit: greekgeek)

But back to schooling. Everyone has been bored at school, for a number of reasons. The subject could be more than the student can handle, or it could be too simple, or it may not be a subject in which the student has no interest.

One of the issues with schooling is that we are taught, well, “subjects”. Well, we are taught “maths” or “biology” or “French”, or “Woodworking” or whatever. We are taught “English”, which is about how sentences are formed and we are drilled in verbs, nouns, adjectives and more esoteric beasts of the English language. Then there is “English Literature”, which largely consists of forcing pupils to read and “study” relatively old English language texts ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens. Rarely anything more modern.

English: Literature

English: Literature (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a syllabus, specifying what we are to be taught. This is used to constrain the teachers and students, so that they can be set examinations to see, basically, how much the teachers have been able to force into usually unwilling minds.

writing/editing my environmental sustainabilit...

writing/editing my environmental sustainability cornerstone seminar syllabus at nabolom bakery in berkeley (Photo credit: davidsilver)

This all seems mechanical and soulless, but a good teacher will try to insert into the gaps and voids of the subject and the syllabus a little education. He or she will try to convey the beauty of the English language as used by Shakespeare and the other authors, he or she will try to make Romeo and Juliet into real people for the students, he or she will explain the societal background of the Dickens tales.

English: Title page of the second quarto editi...

English: Title page of the second quarto edition (Q2) of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet printed by Thomas Creede in 1599. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The good teacher will teach something more – how to look beyond the surface story to the people and the societal background, not just in the set books or any books, but in all the situations that life may throw at the student over the years.

"Good Teacher"

“Good Teacher” (Photo credit: MightyBoyBrian)

A study of literature can not only give the student the knowledge of what is in the books, and maybe an appreciation of the era in which the books are set but may also provide the student with the ability to look critically at the era in which they are living. For some, maybe more than a few of the students, this will provide them with the tools to examine sources like the media and consider such things as bias and veracity.

A book pile illustrating the theme of the fest...

A book pile illustrating the theme of the festival of 2005 “Education, why?”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A teacher of maths will try to not only enable the students to pass their maths exams but also to prepare them, a little, for life. The simple techniques of addition and subtraction may be all that they need, but sometimes they may need a bit more. Some of the students may go on to be mathematicians, to study the subject in its own right. But many more may acquire the tools to understand some of the numbers that surround us all in our daily lives.

Day 304: Problem Solving Strategies for Math

Day 304: Problem Solving Strategies for Math (Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman)

For instance, when a poll result is given on television, often they also quote a ‘margin of error’. A small but significant number of people will have some idea of what that actually means from some long ago statistics class. The vast majority doesn’t have a clue as to what it means, but the brightest might gather that it relates to how accurately the poll represents the wider population.

Margin of error-visual

Margin of error-visual (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another example of a mathematical tool that could be useful is contained in an episode of the British sitcom, “Please Sir!”. This is a comedy about an inspirational teacher and a class of pupils who are rejects from other classes. The teacher follows an informal teaching agenda as it is evident that his class is not going to pass any exams.

English: Statue of Sir Hugh Owen , A Pioneer o...

English: Statue of Sir Hugh Owen , A Pioneer of Welsh Education Sir Hugh Owen was a pioneer of secondary and tertiary education in Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He tries to instil some mathematics into his students, using as an example a bet on a horse race. He calculates the odds only for one of his students, the son of a bookie, to correct him. The teacher is astounded that the student can calculate the odds so accurately in his head, saying to the student that he didn’t know that the student was good with maths. The student replies that this wasn’t maths, it was “odds”.

At the bookies

At the bookies (Photo credit: Phil Burns)

Science, likewise, has ramifications beyond the bland and often boring stuff a student learns at school. While he or she may come close to disaster in a lab, he or she may take away the concept of analysis and the scientific method that may help him or her in later life. At least when one of the TV detectives grabs a scrap of clothing or a sample of blood or something and sends it for analysis, he or she may have an inkling of what is happening. Though these shows are an education of a sort in themselves.

Day 53 - West Midlands Police Forensic Scene I...

Day 53 – West Midlands Police Forensic Scene Investigators Lab (Photo credit: West Midlands Police)

So why is the educational system focussed on schooling rather than educating? Well, for one thing it is easier to measure schooling rather than education. Facts trotted out for an exam yield a measurable yardstick to judge both student and teacher. It’s altogether more difficult to measure education.

Seal of the United States Department of Education

Seal of the United States Department of Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s because an education is not about facts learned. It’s about facts learned and a deeper understanding of how the facts interrelate within the system, be it Greek history, English literature, maths or science. Nevertheless, the best teachers provide an education as well as schooling. They should be applauded for it.

English: Primary School in "open air"...

English: Primary School in “open air”, in Bucharest, around 1842. Wood engraving, 11x22cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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