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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

As I was driving into Cognac early in the morning I noticed this ribbon of low mist lying on the fields just in front of the vines.

I pulled over and took a couple of photos.

When I look at them again I’m drawn into the flow of wonder, to awe, to transcendence.

I begin by wondering how the air is full of water even when the sky is blue and there’s no hint of dampness to feel. How this invisible water condenses to become visible and lies along the face of the earth for a short while before evaporating back into the invisibility of the air.

I find that amazing.

I’m reminded of the writings of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, who described how what we see as solid substance looks as if it is made of molecules when you look closer with a microscope, how those molecules look like separate atoms joined together once you examine them even more closely. How, with the ability to look inside atoms, once considered “indivisible”, the fundamental building blocks of reality, we discovered many other smaller “particles”, right down to protons, electrons, neutrons, which, in turn seemed to be made up of even smaller “quarks”. But that now we can see even closer and what we see is……nothing. What we see are waves and particles shimmering and sparkling into, and out of, existence.

That fills me with awe.

That provokes the sense that reality is all One, that the so called boundaries and barriers are artificial, transient, insubstantial, and in that moment I feel a dissolving of the Self, a feeling of One-ness with the Universe, a moment of transcendence.

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See this large rock just above the harbour in Biarritz? How does the sea make it to the shore when this rock is in the way?

The most obvious way is to go around it.

And that’s what most of the water does. It makes it way towards the shore, and back out to sea again by breaking against the rock and flowing around each side of it.

That’s one way to deal with an obstacle, with something standing in your way…..find a way around it.

But, wait, look at this…..

…the water has found another way as well.

It goes THROUGH the rock!

I suspect this has taken a very, very long time for wave after wave to make its way through a small crack in the rock, widening the gap slightly every time it passes through. But look at it now. Sometimes when a more substantial wave hits the far side of the rock it flows directly through the gap. Doesn’t happen every time. Just when the waves are big enough.

So, there’s the other solution. Keep going. Keep pushing up against the obstacle, looking for a gap, an opportunity, a way through, and once you find it, come back again and again. Each time, it’ll get easier. Each time the gap will get wider, the way will become broader.

Something else…..this is just beautiful to watch. Mesmerising even. Over the course of a few minutes you can see how the rock and the sea sculpt each other. It’s a delightful relationship.

Oh, and something else……Michel Serres, a French philosopher who died recently, used to describe human beings as “anticipation creatures”. I recently listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Onbeing, where the science journalist, Erik Vance, talked about “the drugs inside our head”. He was discussing the poorly understood but fundamentally important phenomenon known as the “placebo effect”, and one thing he said was that our brains are “prediction machines” (well, I hate the metaphor of “machine” applied to living organisms, but you get the point…).

Both Serres and Vance are talking about our incredible ability to spot patterns, so that we can predict the future. OK, not too far into the future, and not with 100% accuracy, but we don’t just notice the world, we anticipate it.

As I stood watching this phenomenon of the white surf gushing out of the mouth in the rock, I was quickly captured by the experience of anticipation, watching the swells on the surface of sea further out, trying to predict which would turn into waves big enough to pour through the rock.

It was hard to stop.

It was delightful.

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The front door of the house where I live opens directly onto a south facing garden. You could say there is grass covering most of this part of the garden, but I tend to think “diverse living ground cover” is somewhat more accurate. You see, I don’t tend it as a “lawn” trying to get it all uniform and regular. I do cut it with a lawnmower, and if there are any particularly jaggy thistles or the like, I might dig some of them out. Apart from that, I leave it do its own thing. And it is always surprising me!

Yesterday morning I opened the shutters, stepped out, and immediately in front of me was this little display of flowers. Aren’t they beautiful?

Of course, I took a photo. Just as well, because by the evening I could find no trace of them whatsoever.

So, this morning when I went out I saw this….

A single flourish!

This time, I paid closer attention and went out again to see how it was doing at 3pm, by which time the shadow cast by the sprawling mulberry tree was covering this whole plant.

Here’s what I saw….

Like yesterday, the show was over!

Goodness! How brief! What a spectacular creation of petals and colour! And what a disappearance!

If you look closely you can see (sorry, slightly out of focus I notice) a small cluster of pale beige petals where the bright colourful display had been. How does this happen? How does this plant create and display with such a flourish (get it? “flourish/flowerish”!) and how does it bring the display to an end?

You know, I think we often have the idea that plants are pretty static…..well, they aren’t! They are dynamic, vivaceous, always changing, living creatures!

One more thing……this was a great real life example for me of how the Japanese valuing of impermanence works. That little flower has somehow just become a bit more extraordinary, a bit more special, to me!

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Here’s a small crop of beans from the garden this morning.

First, let me say, I think they are just beautiful! Like gemstones….

Two things strike me – not one of them is identical to any of the others.

Every single bean is unique.

That’s a Law of Nature.

Secondly, there is no way to tell which one of these beans will grow into a plant, even if I plant them all at the same time, in the same soil, and tend to them all equally.

Life is unpredictable at the level of the individual.

That’s another Law of Nature.

The Universe has taken 14 billion years to create you. You are unique. You are special.

Only you can express your uniqueness, unfolding, growing, developing your one special life, one day at a time.

 

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Don’t you find that an encounter with art often provokes? Well, I do. On a recent trip to the Ile d’Oleron I wandered amongst the gorgeous, brightly coloured old fishing huts which have been transformed into artists’ workshops. They look a bit like this….

Beautiful, huh?

Let’s get back to the point of this post – the photo I used at the beginning. Here it is again, in case you don’t want to scroll back….

What I love about this image is that it depicts an encounter. A meeting of two creatures. Not two people, but a girl and a sea creature of some kind (not entirely sure what kind of sea creature!). Clearly, they are swimming towards each other. They have formed a relationship. A particular kind of relationship. A loving relationship. They are about to kiss. It feels like that. It looks like that.

So, that provoked two trains of thought for me.

First, about loving encounters, which create the most important kind of relationship in the universe – a loving relationship.

Why do I say that’s the most important kind of relationship? Because a loving relationship creates, and is created by, the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. These are a special kind of bond. They are “integrative”. They bring together people, organisms, energies, particles, every kind of phenomenon you can imagine, and, if they really do work in a mutually beneficial way, they create. They are the basis of growth, development and evolution. They produce novelty, unpredictably. They are the source of emergence, that phenomenon in the universe where what’s created could not be explained or predicted by examining only the parts of the previous state.

I do believe these are the most important kind of bonds we can create. At any level.

Second, about kisses. This image immediately reminded me of a passage in one of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli’s books.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Isn’t that beautiful, too?

I love to think of the world this way. Not as a collection of events but as a network of events – “of kisses, not stones“.

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Striking bird, huh? I’d never seen a “hoopoe” until I came to live here in the Charente. I still find them very exotic. It’s as if the bring a touch of far away into my garden.

Every Spring a couple of them turn up, then a little later, I’ll see them together, mum, dad, and a rather large offspring. I don’t know where they nest so I don’t see the young bird till he or she arrives in the garden hopping quickly here and there to wherever mum or dad find a worm or a grub. Beak open astonishingly wide to receive the newly discovered food.

At first, the young bird just seems to hang around watching and waiting, but after a few visits begins to drill that long beak down into the grass searching for food itself. Never seems to find any though! So still rushes across to the parents every time they strike lucky – which they do with amazing regularity.

Then a time comes when the young bird is there in the garden by themselves, drilling down here, drilling down there. I’ve seen them do this for literally hours without seeming to find a single thing. The first time I saw a day like that I got worried that maybe the young bird would never learn the skill of finding food….and then what?

But you know what? They stick with it, and, finally, start coming up with the goodies. I’ve no idea how they do that. Seriously, if you’re a bit of an expert in birds, can you tell me? How does the hoopoe know where to drill down into the earth for food? Clearly it’s not random. Well, actually, I think for the young bird, that at first, it is pretty random. But then they learn. I wonder what they learn? I wonder what they sense and how they develop that sense?

Well, yesterday was the First of September, and the weatherman said it was the first day of Autumn here. He explained that meteorologically July is the month with the hottest average temperatures, so that’s considered the height of summer, making June, July, August the summer months. January has the coldest average temperatures, so that’s the depth of winter, making December, January, February winter. Spring and Autumn fit in between those two trimesters. The Equinox, when the number of hours of daytime exactly matches the number of hours of night, falls on September 23rd. That’s when it will usually start to feel like autumn here.

Still, after a week of blue skies and warm days, the 1st September was grey and a bit rainy. As if to say “I told you so”. (Although, the sun is back out again today, the 2nd)

One change I’ve noticed though, is that the hoopoes have gone. Haven’t seen them for two or three days now and I suspect they’ve headed south. They spend the winter months in Africa before coming back here next Spring. By the way, how do they do that?? How do they find their way to Africa then back to the same garden here in the Charente? How much energy does it take to fly all that way? Honestly, I’m finding Life more amazing every day. It’s just full of things to wonder about!

So this feels like a marking of a new cycle right enough.

If you’re reading this in the Southern hemisphere of course, you’ll be seeing winter fading away and the early signs of Spring appearing. Isn’t that amazing too?

These rhythms feel ancient, deep and fundamental to me. There is something so pleasing about these natural cycles. It seems important somehow to be aware of them, and to adjust, to adapt, to tune in, to get in harmony with them. Doing so seems to add to the feeling that life is good.

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Here’s a small basket of the tomatoes we picked from our garden this morning.

What strikes you about these tomatoes?

Well, what strikes me is their diversity.

They are a huge range of sizes, colours and shapes, partly because they come from different plants chosen because they are different varieties.

I SO prefer this to a packet of same-size, same-colour, same-variety tomatoes we can buy in one of the local supermarkets. Even just to look at….but also to taste! Here’s a simple plate from yesterday.

Only tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil, a touch of salt and pepper. That’s it! Mmmmm….

I could leave this post right here. It’s enough, isn’t it, to celebrate colour, taste, freshness, locally sourced food, and the simple pleasures which make a day delightful.

But I’m not going to.

Because what strikes me about both of these images is the issue of diversity. We live in mass society – mass production, mass consumption, mass conformity. This last element is necessary to ensure the efficient workings of the first two. Without mass conformity, mass production and mass consumption go belly up. (yes, I choose my words carefully – he! he!)

There are enormous pressures to consume in this society, and equally enormous ones to produce. A lot of value is attached to both. Did you ever come across an old black and white comedy, “The Man in the White Suit”, about an inventor who creates a totally indestructible fabric? The lead character is a scientist whose discovery industry immediately tries to suppress, because it would mean people could have clothes which would last a lifetime…..and sales of clothes would plummet!

I remembered this old film the other day when I took my car to the garage to have worn-out shock absorbers replaced (ouch!). The mechanic told me that shock absorbers used to last 100,000 km but now they last only about 80,000 km. Guess that’s progress!

Jacques Ellul, who lived, researched, taught and wrote in Bordeaux, produced an astonishing analysis of mass society in his lifetime. I’ve just finished reading two of his main works (in English) – “The Technological Society” and “Propaganda“. Although both were published in the 1960s, they are extremely pertinent in 2019. He shows how a focus on “technique” – by which he means setting goals, then creating measurable processes to achieve them – brings a whole host of improvements and progress to human life, but, inevitably, is accompanied by widespread and deep de-humanisation. Plans, judgements, decisions, resources, all become grist to the mill of mass production and mass consumption. Mass society needs conformity, controls, rules, regulations, norms and standards. There is no room for “variance”, “diversity” or “uniqueness”.

He also showed how mass conformity is produced through targeted propaganda, focused on the “individual”. Now, doesn’t that seem a paradox? Don’t we tend to think of “mass” at one end of a spectrum and “the individual” at the other? Well, it turns out that apparent paradox is the key to mass control.

Long after Ellul published these works, the world saw the birth of a new politics, represented clearly by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was Thatcher who famously said “there is no such thing as society”. The new politics became known as “neoliberalism”. With the spread of neoliberalism society became increasingly atomised. The idea was that everyone was on their own and in competition with everyone else, and through “the market”, and a form of “social Darwinism”, the weak, the inefficient, the failures, would die off, and the strongest, “best”, people and methods would win the day.

It’s a toxic mix. Mass plus individualism.

But, hey, I hear you say, I AM an individual! I am NOT the same as everyone else! I’m not just a robot, a machine, a cog in a greater machine!

I hear you.

But here’s my take on that – individualism divides us. It sets us against each other and ignores what we share and what we have in common. It feeds the divisions, prejudices, hatred and fear of “the other” which have become all too common. But I don’t want to be just a data point in Cambridge Analytica’s memory banks. I don’t want to be a mere pawn of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram….my details harvested to target me with highly crafted propaganda to make me conform, or to support a small group who have, and want to hold onto, riches and power.

How do I resolve that paradox? I sure don’t have it all figured out but I have some thoughts…..

I don’t think we need to subscribe to either of these extremes – a data point in the mass, or an individual ego, disconnected from the rest of the planet. I think there is a third option.

Uniqueness.

Isn’t that the same thing as individuality? No, I don’t think so. For a whole host of reasons, but, for starters, because “individualism” prioritises separateness and difference. It’s a form of what the English philosopher, Mary Midgely called “social atomism” – see her “The Solitary Self” and “Science and Poetry” for her analysis of this problem. Uniqueness, on the other hand, demands an examination of contexts, of circumstances, connections and environments.

To fully experience and understand the uniqueness of this moment, it helps to see it as a dynamic, changing-before-your-eyes, event. I am unique because of the myriad of connections and flows which make me who I am. I have emerged from a particular family with it’s family tree, in a specific place, at a specific time, and continue to grow and develop through a unique and personal chain of experiences which I weave into a story I call “being me” (or better “becoming me”!)

Every single day at work as a doctor I’d meet patients who came to tell me their own, unique, and personal, story. It’s how I got to understand them. It’s how I made diagnoses, offered treatments, therapies and practices to help them re-experience health again. No two patients ever told me the same story. Not in a lifetime of practice.

And here’s the key – the way I revealed their uniqueness (to myself, and often, to themselves too), was by uncovering the connections, the flows, the contexts, environments and events of their lives.

I never wanted them all to be the same. I never wanted them all to become the same. In health, as well as in sickness, every person turns out to be unique.

OK, this is a personal bee in my bonnet, but I have a hunch that if we tipped the scales a bit, away from a focus on the mass, away from a focus on the individual, and towards uniqueness, that we might begin to create a better world. Maybe it would draw us away from competition and division towards cooperation and connection.

Does this make sense to you?

I mean, it’s a bit of a leap from a basketful of tomatoes!

But before I go, here’s one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems, The Summer Day, which doesn’t use the word “uniqueness” but it seems to me to be all about it…

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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