Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Since I retired six years ago and emigrated from Scotland to France I’ve lived in a house surrounded by vineyards. Watching the changes across the seasons and seeing how the workers tend to the vines has been an education for me. There’s something very comforting about watching the sweep of the seasons through the year. It helps me to feel more in tune with Nature’s harmonies and cycles.

I think these two photos capture two concepts which vineyards can convey – diversity and order.

You can see as you look at these images that the vineyards are not uniform. Although the individual “wires” run parallel to each other within any single vineyard, each yard runs in a different direction. Some run north to south, some east to west, and yet others seem to be on a diagonal. This brings a real sense of diversity to whole landscape, despite the fact that as far as the eye can see there are vines everywhere.

What you can’t really see in these images is that each vineyard is a different age. Each year, some old vines are removed and new ones are planted. As I look out of my window just now I can see one whole vineyard which is row after row of seedlings, each in a bright green protective plastic tube. All the other vineyards are golden or brown. Some still seem to have all their leaves, and others have hardly any left at all.

That diversity strikes me as really important because its in so many dimensions – place, direction of the “wires”, age of the plantation – and so on.

Yet at the same time there is an incredible amount of order. At the time of the pruning the workers move from plant to plant trimming each one back to only two branches, and tying them onto the wires. The row after row of vines is the most ordered, planned and maintained landscape I think I’ve ever seen. Farmland in Scotland is not at all like this. OK, maybe if you see a field with all one crop, be it rapeseed or wheat, it looks pretty uniform, but these vines seem to take order and control to a whole other level.

You might think that diversity and order are opposites, and in some way, they are. So what we have here is that key phenomenon of “integration” – two apparent opposites existing together in synthesis, in harmony, in a way where neither negates the other.

We need diversity in our lives. We need some order too. But most of all we need “integration” – bringing everything together to work in harmony.

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There’s something very beautiful about this cloud pattern. I prefer a sky like this to a homogenous grey one where an apparently solid cloud stretches from one horizon to the other.

I like its “granularity”, the fact it is made of many different smaller clouds, not one of them floating in the sky alone.

When you think about our theory of the origins of the universe – that Big Bang theory – maybe it’s not right but it’s an impressive image isn’t it….the idea that in the beginning was a tiny dense energy which all of a sudden exploded out in all directions to create the universe as we know it. When you think about that, if it is true, then why did these waves of energy start to condense and form clusters, groups and objects? Why when we look at the night sky, even when we look at our own galaxy, The Milky Way, do we not see either just darkness in all directions, or a homogenous grey film stretching from one horizon to the next?

What we see in the night sky are millions and millions of stars, galaxies, and even groups of galaxies. Maybe what lies between them is dark material, and dark energy. But so far we haven’t been able to find it.

The universe is granular. It isn’t homogenous. It’s made of stuff gathered together into clusters and objects. Or, at least, that’s how it seems. So what we see is difference. We see each object as different from it’s surroundings.

We see each object as different from all other other objects, in terms of spatial and temporal co-ordinates, but also in terms of the exact amounts and proportions of elements of which it is made.

We see each object as having a different life story, a different origin in time and space, a different set of environmental influences. We see each object as having a uniqueness which we can only understand by following the multitude of it’s connections – in time, in space, in relationships and in experience.

Beginnings, endings, events and experiences. Edges and boundaries. Connections and relationships. None of this would exist if the universe weren’t full of difference.

Maybe that’s why I find this cloud pattern so beautiful…..because it reveals a fundamental principle of all existence.

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I’ve got lots of photos of spider webs. When there has been a heavy dew and the sun is just up in the morning they look absolutely bejewelled. Mesmerising and gorgeous. Most webs have that classic spiral appearance with a clear centre, and strands all spreading outwards from that centre, then concentric rings of web woven around and around that centre point.

But this one is different, and maybe you’ll look at it and think it’s not as beautiful because it has neither a clear centre, nor any lovely symmetries. But this structure is one of the most fundamental shapes in Nature.

It’s a network. It’s made up of two simple components – nodes and connections. There is no single clear centre, no branching or hierarchical structure. Some nodes are multiply connected, others only connected to two other nodes.

The cells and organs of our bodies are like this – they are multiply connected and once change takes place somewhere it spreads quickly through the entire network. There is no single commanding point. This is an incredibly flexible, adaptive structure and it is exactly what every “complex adaptive system” looks like – either literally, or functionally.

I find it utterly beautiful and wondrous. I love how I can understand human biology through this lens. I love how I can understand the brain through this lens. I love how I can understand ecosystems through this lens.

Every single one of us exists within, and emerges within, these vast complex webs or networks of Life. We don’t function like machines. The connections are not linear – instead they are “non-linear” – so effects can accelerate as they cascade through the system, and changes can occur which are utterly unpredictable from the starting state.

This reminds me of the importance of seeing each of us, not as separate disconnected individuals, but instead as unique instances of change within the entire web of Life.

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Do you see the rock just beyond the harbour wall? The white foam of the sea catches your eye, doesn’t it? At first, you think it’s water splashing against the rock, because, that’s something you’ve seen many, many times before. But if you keep looking the foam disappears and you can see this –

Click on the photo to get a closer look. Can you see the gap in the rock where the white foam was? If you look very carefully you can still see some water falling down the front of the rock from that gap.

This rock has a gap in it. A long narrow gap. The waves crash against the other side of the rock, the side you can’t see from the land (the dark side of the rock??) and some of the water flows through that gap and cascades down the front.

I don’t know how this began, and I’ve no idea when it began, but it’s quite mesmerising to watch. There’s a rhythm to it, as there always is when you are watching waves breaking on a shore line.

However it began, I know that every time some water forces its way through this gap it widens it just a little bit more. I can’t help but think about that power of water and what it can teach us.

Little by little, probably imperceptibly at first, constant, repeated, pressure of the water against the rock opens, and widens, a hole right through the middle of the rock. It would be tempting to think of the rock as solid and unchanging, and the water as soft and constantly changing, but this reveals that’s not quite right. It’s true that the presence of the rock changes the shape of the water – influences the speed and direction of the waves. But the water actually constantly changes the rock.

Gentle, constant persistence.

I’ve always been a fan of that. The ability to be present, and to pay attention, to sustain that attention, is a powerful skill. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons why so many patients told me the same thing – that they had just told me something they had never told another human being. It always amazed me to hear that. Sometimes it would be an important, even a key, part of their story which made it possible to make a diagnosis. Sometimes it brought about a sudden revelation which allowed the person to make sense of what they were experiencing. One small part of a life story might be like that gap in the rock and as the water of insight flowed through it, suddenly we both understood.

I suppose it’s a bit like that famous line from Leonard Cohen –

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

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I’ve just finished reading Madeline Miller’s superb “Circe”. I can’t tell you just how much I enjoyed it. I found it a great read. I am a bit familiar with some of the Greek myths and legends, including the story of Odysseus, but this way of telling Circe’s story let’s Madeline Miller tell you some of those myths from a new perspective. I just loved it.

Last night I read a passage which made me think “Yes! I must share this!” Here it is –

When I was young, I overheard our palace surgeon. He said that the medicines he gave out were only for show. Most hurts heal by themselves, he said, if you give them time. It was the kind of secret I loved to discover, for it made me feel cynical and wise.

I have long believed exactly that. I used to say to patients something like “If you break a leg, the surgeon will apply a plaster to your leg to hold it still. The plaster doesn’t repair the fracture. It just holds the ends together while your body gets on with doing what it does – healing – or, in this case, repairing the fracture.” Or I’d tell someone “This antibiotic isn’t going to cure your bladder infection. What antibiotics do is to kill bugs. That’s a good thing. But your bladder wall is all inflamed because of the infection, and it’s that inflammation which is causing your symptoms. The antibiotic will have no direct effect on your inflammation. But it will reduce the number of harmful bugs in your bladder to allow your body to get on with doing what it does – healing.”

Does that seem unnecessarily pedantic? I don’t think so. I think it reinforces the patient’s belief that their body can self-heal – which is exactly what all “Complex Adaptive Systems” do – all living creatures have these abilities to self-regulate, self-defend, and self-repair. It’s what they do.

That’s the wisdom part.

But in Circe’s telling this knowledge also brings a certain cynicism, and for me, that’s always been about the place of drugs in health care. There isn’t a drug on the market which is designed to directly promote and/or stimulate self-healing and self-repair. Each drug attempts to redress an imbalance, or to suppress some symptoms or pathologies. The business of the body doing what the body does – self-healing and self-repair is left to be a hopeful sort of side-benefit at best.

There are ways to work more in harmony with the body’s natural powers, but, in my opinion, those ways aren’t taken seriously enough. Targeting pathology/disease and/or symptoms remains the dominant model. But I do dream of a time when the balance tips towards targeting health/healing and/or powers of self-repair, and self-healing. The present types of drugs and treatments will then be seen as the potentially useful adjuvants that they really can be. They will no longer be seen as enough by themselves.

Oh, by the way, “Circe” isn’t a book about health or disease. It’s a telling of some of the Greek myths. It’s just that passage really resonated with me so I thought I’d share it. And, on reflection, don’t those myths have something to tell us about disease and illness, and how we cope, heal and grow?

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I’ve got a lot of photos I’ve taken which are of this type. They are examples of Islamic art in Spain. Actually there are several different types in my collection, one of which is tiles, like these ones.

I adore these repeating, interconnected, geometric patterns. I love the stars you can see in them. There are small six pointed stars, small eight pointed ones, and small twelve pointed ones. Can you find examples of all of those? Then as the lines spread out from each star, they create hexagons, squares and diamonds.

What I see most clearly when I look at an image like this is a representation of the fundamental connectedness of creation – I see nodes and bonds – an intricately, inter-laced network where nothing exists in isolation and every part emerges from the creation of the web of connections.

Here’s a somewhat different example. Now, I’m not a scholar of art history, but I do know that there are elements of different cultures in this particular image. There is a hint of Islamic art, a thread of Celtic art, and across the middle there are three chimerical creatures – perhaps a “manticore”, a “mermaid” and a “centaur”?

I love seeing these interwoven influences of different cultures, and it isn’t hard to find examples in Spain which has such a rich history of different peoples living there at different, and even overlapping, times.

These chimerical creatures are really strange to our modern eye and they are often seen as imaginary beasts or monsters, but when I see them here in this panel embedded in webs of inter-locking links and lines, I wonder if they actually represent something of an origin story. Do these half man/half lion, half woman/half fish and half man/half horse actually remind us of our shared origins – we humans and the rest of creation?

We have such a tendency to see human beings as separate from Nature. In fact there is a long tradition in the West in particular of seeing “Man” as superior to “Nature” and even having a God-given duty to subdue and control all the other creatures and forms of Nature on the planet. There are strains of religious teaching in there, but there are also roots in the origins of the “scientific method” and, in particular in a certain strain of darwinism (not put forward by Darwin himself).

We lose a lot when we separate ourselves from the rest of the planet we co-habit with all other forms of Life. We distance ourselves from other creatures and that seems to free us up to treat them with contempt and cruelty. There’s something deeply mistaken in thinking of all non-human reality as “resources” to be “exploited”.

But there is another way. I’m aware of at least three strands of knowledge which contribute to a more holistic, more inter-connected, and, I believe, healthier model.

I start with complexity science, and in particular the concept of the “complex adaptive system“. When I view myself, others, or any phenomenon on the planet through this lens, then the whole of Nature is one inter-connected organism. Nothing exists in isolation. Every action, every thought, every behaviour is influenced by, and influences the actions, behaviours and thoughts of others.

Next I am fascinated by genetics and embryology. It has always been a source of complete wonder and amazement to me that a single egg cell can be fertilised by a single sperm, then divide over and over and over again, differentiating the cells as it grows, to create the billions of cells which make all the tissues, organs and cells of the human body. And all in the right place! It continues to astonish me that all of our cells can be traced back to just two cells – one from each parent. But on top of that, it’s been amazing to see the incredible degree of “overlap”, or perhaps more correctly, of shared origin in the genomes of humans and other creatures. It’s pretty mind boggling to discover how many genes we have in common with earthworms for example!

Thirdly, I’m convinced about Lynn Margulis’ “endosymbiotic theory” – the idea that all multicellular creatures have evolved not only from unicellular ones, but that the individual cell components of nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, perhaps chloroplasts, were all originally separate creatures which evolved to live together and form these more complex structures of animal and plant cells. Each cell can be thought of as a little community, and each cell exists as a member of a larger community. This places co-operation, collaboration and symbiosis at the very heart of reality.

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The Boston Ivy plant which grew over the entire enormous ancient wall which ran along one side of my garden has continued to thrive even though the wall fell down dramatically just before Christmas almost a whole year ago. In that time the stones have been left where they fell and what was left of the vine continued to grow and, even, thrive.

This is an amazing plant which goes through extremely distinct phases. There are little beak-like buds on the ends of the woody stems which open up in the Spring. The glorious green leaves which unfurl are so dense that many birds make their nests in them and in the Summer the whole plant buzzes loudly to the sound of thousands of bees collecting pollen. It produces seeds which pop out of their shells once the Sun passes towards the Western horizon beyond the wall each day, and they cascade down in the millions, sounding for all the world like a fountain. The first time I heard it I actually went looking for the water pouring down the wall, but, of course, there was none. Then in the autumn the leaves turn yellows, golds and reds, then fall off, revealing foot long bright yellow stalks, one for each leaf. These fall next. As each layer is shed other structures and colours appear….dark purple berries, and bright red stalks.

This photo, which I took a couple of days ago, shows the pattern of red stalks, now that the berries and leaves have now gone. This is a distinctive form – I recognise it from my days of anatomy study at university. The human body uses this form a lot….this structure of ever branching pathways, from large trunks to a myriad of small stalks. You can see that in our lungs. Air passes down from our noses and mouths via the trachea which branches into two – one for each lung. Then in each lung there are many further branchings, creating ever smaller, narrower passageways until finally they end in little swellings like bunches of grapes – the alveoli. You can look at how blood circulates around our bodies, through arteries, veins and capillaries and you see this same continuously branching structure. You can see similar pathways in our kidneys but the direction of branching seems reversed, starting with a myriad of small tubules, which collect together to form bigger ones, all of them ultimately draining into the ureters, one for each kidney – just like we see streams joining to form rivers which flow down the mountains to the sea. I could go on….you see this sort of structure everywhere in the body and you see it everywhere in plants as well.

At first glance it looks complex, but in fact it’s a pretty simple, straightforward form. It looks like there is more of it than necessary….wouldn’t it be better to channel all the flows down major routes instead? After all when you fall your SatNav doesn’t it tell you the quickest way to get from A to B is to avoid all the small, branching, “side” roads?

But Nature knows better. Not only does this pattern allow for the greatest interaction of, say, the plant, or the human, with the air, by creating the greatest surface area contained within a relatively compact space, but it is incredibly resilient, robust and flexible. If the flow were to be obstructed in one small section, it would soon be re-established, or increased through the myriad of other passageways.

This is what is called “redundancy” and Nature loves “redundancy” – it’s the opposite of modern management systems of “efficiency”. The idea is to always have more options, more resources, than you think you need. We design aircraft this way – they have so many backup systems, so much “redundancy”, more engines than it needs to fly, so that even if there is a failure, other systems and resources will immediately kick in so that the plane continues to fly – planes aren’t “resilient” – they aren’t designed to recover quickly from damage – they are “robust” – they are designed not to fail in the first place.

If there is one thing this pandemic has revealed, it’s the wisdom of Nature and natural systems. We have pared back our Health Services and Care Services to the bone. We have closed hospitals, beds and facilities, and failed to employ enough staff to deal with any more than the basic needs of the population – and even that not very well.

Surely it’s time to resource these services much much better. We need vastly more trained doctors, nurses and other staff. We need more facilities, more equipment and more flexible to systems. We need different, diversified, localised and devolved structures of power and organisation.

That’s the way Nature works. That’s the way the human body works. Why not design our organisations and societies on the same principles?

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Have you ever grown any beans? You know there’s something really wonderful about choosing different kinds of beans from a seed supplier, planting them, watching the little green plants poke up through the earth, then following their incredible climb all the way up to the top of a wall, or a fence, then seeing the long skinny pods form and hang down. Breaking open the dry pods to scoop out the beans is such a thrill.

Here are a few beans from just two pods. First of all, don’t you think they are beautiful? They are like tiny works of art. Second, isn’t it incredible that every single one of them is different? The particulars of the patterns on each bean are unique. Is this always the case? I don’t know. But it kind of looks like each bean is as unique as a fingerprint. Have you ever tried to find even two completely identical beans which are patterned like this? I mean, imagine, this level of uniqueness and diversity in beans! How much more amazing are the depths of uniqueness and diversity in human beings (or human beans if you like 😉 )

Thirdly, do you know that it is impossible to tell which of these beans is alive? There isn’t a single scientific test which can correctly tell if a particular seed is alive or dead. There is no way to know that this one will germinate and grow, but that one will just decompose. There are some statistical methods which can attach a figure suggesting the chances of a certain portion of seeds in a batch being “viable”, but no way to tell for each single, unique seed. Don’t you think that’s astonishing?

But I guess Life and Death have always astonished me. I’ve been present at the births of many children, and I’ve been present at the deaths of many people too. But that first breath a baby takes, and that last breath a dying man or woman takes, astonish me every time. Both these events seem mysterious to me. When does life begin? And when does it end? You’d think those would be simple questions, but they are not.

Then what about levels of consciousness? After all, aren’t many of these beans sort of sleeping, just waiting to wake up and start to grow when the time, the place and the conditions are right? How do we humans change consciousness every night and every morning? How do we slip from being awake to being asleep? And how do we wake up when we do?

I expect a lot of people are finding they don’t need their alarms to wake them up in the mornings any more, during these periods of lockdown. When our daily routines have been put on hold, for many of us, our patterns of sleeping and waking have changed too. Maybe for you, you are waking now without an alarm? What wakes you, and when? Sure, sometimes it’s a noise, isn’t it? Even though we are sound asleep, we are still aware of our environment somehow. I remember waking one summer morning in an apartment we rented in Carcassonne. As I woke I heard a nearby church bell ringing the hour. I counted, “seven, eight, nine”, then the bells stopped. I checked my phone and, yes, it was nine o’clock. How did I do that? How did I wake up thinking “seven, eight, nine”? When did I think “one, two, three, four, five, six”? I had absolutely no awareness of the first six bells. Well, not absolutely no awareness of course, but no conscious awareness and no accessible memory of them. I find that astonishing.

So these are still quite miraculous to me – these moments of coming to life, these moments of dying, these moments of falling asleep and those of waking.

Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that just keeps me curious. And maybe it actually adds some quality to everyday life to be aware of the mysterious, the unexplained, and the wonderful.

Hey, isn’t it amazing where a handful of beans can take your mind? How did that happen?

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I love to be able to look over the vines and see the rain falling in the distance. Where I’m standing it’s dry. No raindrops keep falling on my head. But across there towards the horizon I can see where the rain is falling….and where it isn’t falling.

It looks like I can see the edges of the rain. The rain is appearing as sheets, veils, or fingers reaching all the way down from the clouds to the ground. You can see it too, can’t you? You can tell that some parts of the land are getting wet, and that some aren’t.

In other words it appears that we can see the boundaries of the rain – it’s reach, not just vertically from cloud to soil, but horizontally, over a certain distance, left to right, or west to east, or whatever. If we see these boundaries so clearly, then surely, we could measure them. I could find out exactly the height, the breadth and the depth of that rain over there.

The thing is, as best I know, I can only do that approximately, and only if I stay at a sufficient distance from the rain. Because the closer I get, the harder it is to see exactly where the rain is falling, and where it isn’t falling. If I did do a measurement then something interesting happens. I have the impression of exactness. I have the impression that I have a more accurate, more complete knowledge.

But that’s a delusion.

We can prove it’s a delusion just by actually standing in the rain. When we are being rained on, it’s pretty impossible to know if we are in the middle of it, at the beginning of it, or nearing its far edge. It’s a lot easier to see a shadow approaching or receding, than it is to see the rain. That’s at least in part due to the fact that the rain has no hard edges. Those clear boundaries we can see in the distant rain, disappear the closer we get. By the time we step into the rain, the boundaries dissolve. We can no longer see where the rain begins and where it ends.

Yes, I know, there are two exceptions to that……if we look far enough away through the rain we can sometimes see outside of it to land where the rain isn’t falling. That can give us an idea of the rain passing through, knowing that in a short time, it will be gone again. And the other exception is sometimes rain falls in intense highly localised bursts. I’ve been able to see the rain pouring down just outside my garden while I stand, perfectly dry, inside the garden. But that’s rare. And even then, the exact boundaries are far from clear as I approach them.

What this image and these thoughts inspire in me is wonder……wondering about how everything is connected, and how it only looks separate if we don’t look closely enough. The closer we look the more the boundaries dissolve, the more connections and gradations we see.

It also inspires me to think about the difference between observing an object and experiencing an event. I can see the rain in the distance as “something”, maybe even something I could measure. Certainly something with particular dimensions. I see it as an object. But when I stand in the rain I experience it as an event. I don’t see it as an object. I can’t measure it. I can just live it.

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This is a machine. It is manufactured by human beings. It has a number of solid, pretty unchanging parts (ok, they all gradually wear out with use), which are assembled into fixed relationships with each other by other parts…. nuts, bolts, springs, cogs and hinges.

These parts don’t grow. They don’t develop or mature. They don’t develop new ways of connecting to each other and they don’t change their function. Their relationships are linear. A always leads to B.

This machine looks a bit complicated but everything can be taken to pieces and understood. We can learn how it works and predict how it is going to work. It does what it was designed to do and if it stops doing that we can find the parts which are “defective” and replace them with new parts.

Living creatures are not like this. Human beings are not like this. We are not manufactured by human beings. Every cell, every tissue, every organ within the body changes all the time. The massive network of inter-connected feedback loops create relationships in the human body between cells, tissues and organs. These relationships are non-linear. A influences B in the presence C, D, and a host of others, whilst B, in turn influences A. These relationships are not fixed. They are not predictable.

Living creatures, like human beings, are “Complex” not “Complicated”. You can’t take them to pieces and understand the whole.

We are all “complex adaptive systems”, constantly bathed in flows of molecules, energies and information, which we transform within ourselves before contributing to their onward flow into others.

Machines can exist in isolation. Human beings cannot. We live only because we are embedded in the complex biosphere of Nature, dependent on the lives of a myriad of other forms of life, dependent on our relationships with others.

Machines are not unique. You can produce millions of identical machines. Human beings are unique. There has never been “YOU” before in the whole history of the universe, and there will never by “YOU” again, once you die.

The truth is every one of us is special, and every one of us deserves to be treated as unique. Every one of us deserves to be understood within our individual web of connections, relationships and life story.

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