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This summer I did one of those things I’d really, really recommend anyone to do at some point – put it on your bucket list. I went to see the Alhambra in Grenada.

Many of the windows and doors in the Alhambra are beautifully arched. What struck me was that I took a lot of photos, not just of what I could see, but what I could see either through a window or a door.

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Looking at them again now it seems to me that they are enticing….they spark your curiosity and invite you to go and explore more.

That got me wondering about how we frame our views of the world. Not just physically, although it does make me think about the architecture and built environments in which we all live, but emotionally. Because I think we enter each day in a certain frame of mind. Maybe we change that frame (or maybe it feels like somebody changes it for us) during the day, but I wonder just how aware we are of those frames and how much they influence what we see.

Is it possible to just pause now and again and think about what frame is active?

Is it a frame of fear, or one of curiosity for example? Because each of those frames make the world look VERY different.

 

 

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We are drawn towards the edges….

Sunsets attract us. How many of us gather at the viewpoints to watch the setting sun? There’s something deeply appealing about both the disappearance of that fiery sphere as it mutates from a full circle, to a semi-circle, to a rapidly diminishing crescent. Then when it drops below the horizon there’s a period of time when the sky can glow with shades of red, orange and pink, or some tobacco tints until gradually night has fallen. When did you last stand and watch this happen?

It’s a great meditation practice. Just to focus your attention on the changing light and try to become aware of the point where day turns into night. That’s a trick, of course, because there is no such point. The transition of day into night is far more nuanced, way more gradual than that. But keeping your attention on it is calming, delightful and connects you to one of the deepest rhythms of life.

In the second photo here (both taken one evening in San Sebastian, Spain), as day turns into night, the street lights glow in the calm sea as the tide recedes revealing the wet sand below the water. You can see a few people wandering at the edge of this transition. There’s another edge that attracts us. The edge between the land and the sea.

And that’s another edge which is not exact and is certainly not fixed.

Strolling along the ebb or the flow of the sea is deeply pleasing. As is gazing down at it from a promenade, or a viewpoint.

We are drawn towards the edges….you could say that’s how life proceeds, moving towards difference, exploring the boundaries and connections, discovering the new, playing in that “far from equilibrium” zone where growth occurs.

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I noticed this painting high up on a wall inside the cathedral in Segovia, but I don’t know what it means.

In the centre is this interesting cross of what looks like a plume and a cross with three cross bars tied together with a blue ribbon. It’s painted as if it is flying high in the clouds and surrounded by three pairs of cherub-like angels.

Have you ever seen a symbol like this before?

Can you interpret it for me, please?

Unusual accidental selfie

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I visited Bilbao recently and this sculpture of gleaming steel spheres caught my eye.

It was only later, on reviewing my photos, that I realised that I was in this one – caught in the reflection of one of the spheres.

Can you see me?

I have to say, it’s a pretty unusual, accidental selfie!

The edge of the weather

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It’s not so often you can see the edge of the weather so clearly, but there it was, the storm was on its way.

Wow! Was it a big one! Thunder rattling the windows, lightning covering the entire sky, rain hammering down on the earth, and the trees and bushes blown this way and that.

Clouds are fascinating in many ways, not least because you can’t usually really see their edges. You can at first glance, but you only have to watch for a few moments and the edges change, building or dissolving before your very eyes. A big, heavy, thick cloud like this one though holds its edge for longer. I think that’s one of the things that makes it so impressive.

 

The shape of a life

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Look at the shape of this tree!

It heads up from the ground, reaching for the sky just as pretty much all trees do, then suddenly it’s taken and almost ninety degree swerve to the left, but not for long, because then it turns abruptly upwards again, only a little later to take another almost ninety degree turn to the right, after which is takes a much more relaxed ascent, bending slowly upwards.

It caught my eye.

It caught my eye because it was so unusual, so striking, and so unique. None of the other trees around it had shapes or trajectories even remotely like this one.

So what happened? What’s the explanation for the particular shape of this tree’s life?

I realise that’s a question which lay at the basis of my consultation with patients. An individual’s life story has a distinct and unique shape. Are there any explanations for that shape? Which life events made the biggest impact? What kind of impact did they make and, crucially, how did the person respond to those events?

But even without the context of illness, I think life is like this for all of us. We are gaily living in one particular way when, bam! someone happens, there’s a change, an event, and life continues afterwards but in a completely different direction.

What shape is your life story? What changes of direction has it taken and why?

I love how no two life shapes are the same, because no two lives are the same.

And there’s something else to consider when gazing at this tree…..you couldn’t predict it. If you were taken to the forest and shown a seedling, you couldn’t draw the exact shape it will manifest as it grows. DNA analysis isn’t going to give you your answer. Generalising to say most trees of this type will grow this particular way isn’t going to give you an accurate answer.

Every single life is unique, and the shape of every life emerges in the living it.

Science for Heretics

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Barrie Condon, a retired Professor of Physics, generously shared his new book, “Science for Heretics” with me. He thought I’d like it. He was right. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one who science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

Thank you, Barrie Condon, for your delightful, humorous, thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging book. If it was an integral part of science education we might be able to look forward to a better world.