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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

tree-vine-fog

As I was opening the shutters yesterday morning I caught sight of some swirls of mist lying amongst the vines towards the next village. I took a few photos. Here’s one of my favourite ones. It pleases me. Enormously. There’s an entrancing beauty to it. And it’s one of those photos which stimulates all kinds of thoughts for me.

I look at this and I think of two of the fundamental forces of the universe – the ones which Thomas Berry called “wildness” and “discipline”. The large tree in the centre of the image grows wild. It grows naturally and it spreads out above and below ground creating this ever branching structure which looks like its reaching out to the world. It looks like it’s stretching upwards and outwards to feel the sky and the moist air. In front of it are rows and rows of vines, trained and pruned by human hand, disciplined to grow along the wires. The vines form a complex web of life. As I look at them now it’s hard to discern where one plant stops and the next one begins.

When I think of these two forces, I think of the two hemispheres of the brain, each with its distinctive style of engaging with the world. The right hemisphere exploring, seeking the new, making connections. The left hemisphere exploiting, grasping, structuring. Iain McGilchrist writes in “The Divided Brain“, that the right hemisphere characteristically seeks to care, it seeks to engage with “the other” empathically. The left hemisphere seeks to control, seeking to deal with “the other” by categorising, labelling and separating.

How we see these forces at work in the world today!

 

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red-veg

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the outgoing chairman of Nestlé’s intention is for Nestlé to develop food scientifically – synthetic food which will be better than “natural food”. He rejects the notion that food grown in the ground is best for us. He says

Nature is not good to human beings. Nature would kill human beings. The reason why homo sapiens have become what we are is because we learned to overcome nature.

What do you think when you read this?

Is “Nature not good to human beings”? Does Nature seek to “kill human beings”?

I was pretty astonished at this claim because I think human beings are part of Nature, not something outside of “it”. If we want to learn what’s good for us my own feeling is that we should look to the rest of Nature. As Idriss Aberkane says of “biomimicry”, Nature is a library, a source of knowledge, not a source of repository of fuel to burn.

So where does this idea that Nature is trying to kill us come from?

Well, as chance would have it I read an interview with the French philosopher, Michel Onfray, at the weekend, and he mentioned the definition of life given by Bichat, the physiologist

Life is the sum of the forces which resist death

That’s an interesting definition of life – life is resistance. Is death constantly attacking life? I think that’s a pretty miserable and negative understanding of life. But I think it might come from the notion of entropy. You know about entropy? Entropy is “the gradual decline into disorder”. The second law of thermodynamics states “entropy always increases over time”. You can probably see how this observation can lead you to think that we are only alive as long as we resist death, disorder, and decline. But is that enough to lead you to conclude that Nature is trying to kill us?

It seems to me that this entropic force in the universe is only one of the major forces at play. What Thomas Berry referred to as “wildness” is another way of thinking about this force. It’s the chaotic force. If this was all there was, or if this was the dominant force, what would the universe look like? Would there be stars? Would there be galaxies of stars moving together? Would stars have planets? Would there be any complex living organisms? How could there be? There is a second force. One Thomas Berry calls “discipline”. It’s the ordering principle, the structuring principle, which contains, limits and holds together. But what if that was the only force in the universe? What would the universe look like then? Would it be any more than a dense ball of energy? Would it be expanding? Would it show diversity? Or would whatever existed by “more of the same”?

I think there is a third force at work in this universe, because it seems to me, without it, there is a tendency for the first two forces to cancel each other out, or for there to be a significant tendency towards either chaos or uniformity.

That third force is creativity. The creative force is a force of integration – it integrates the two forces of wildness and discipline to produce astonishing levels of complexity. Look at the history of the universe. Is it a history of endless decline and degeneration, or one of stasis and constriction? Or is it a story of ever increasing complexity and diversity?

It’s this latter, isn’t it? The universe is on a course of increasing complexity. We humans, with our bodies, our brains and our consciousness, are the most complex phenomena the universe has produced so far. But we haven’t been about for very long.

cosmic_calendar

(the cosmic calendar)

The universe is on a course of increasing diversity. Not just the rich diversity of species and life forms on planet Earth, but in the diversity of unique human beings. Not one of us ever repeated. No single experience of a whole life ever duplicated.

So is Nature a threat to us? Or is Nature a manifestation of the creative force of the universe?

I’m opting for the latter view. And I’m going to continue to enjoy the fruits of that rich creative diversity, just like you see in my photo at the start of this post. I won’t be swapping “real food” for synthesised, chemically “enhanced” stuff any time soon!

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twelve-project-day-seven

Day seven of the twelve images over twelve days, one photo from each of the months in 2016 – Happy New Year to you, by the way (I’m writing this on the 1st of January 2017)

We have a number of buddleia bushes in our garden. Most of them produce these amazing purple flowers (one produces white flowers) which butterflies and hummingbird moths just love. I like to sit close to these bushes where I am surrounded by dozens of these beautiful creatures. The wings of the hummingbird moths are so fast that they emit a deep buzzing sound so you know when they are around, but the butterflies are completely silent.

I can watch them for ages. I love to see them up close like in this photo. You can see them delicately slipping a long proboscis into the centre of each little flower. They are so quick and so accurate. And of course their wings are painted so gloriously.

The butterflies stimulate two trains of thought for me – unpredictability and change.

I’ve tried to see if they work around a bush in any kind of methodical way but I can’t see that they do. Every move seems totally random. They’ll be selecting one little flower after another to explore, then suddenly they fly off into the air, zigzagging around, up, down, left and right, then might settle again on the exact same flower they had just left, check out a different part of the bush or fly off to a neighbouring bush. There’s just no telling where they are going to go next. Their whole movement seems to embody randomness. It’s quite something.

Then if you stop to think about how the butterfly you can see is only one stage in a cycle of astonishingly different forms you realise very quickly why they are the symbols of metamorphosis and change. From egg, to larvae (caterpillar), to pupae (chrysalis) and the beautifully winged creature. A life of the most incredible phases and changes. As far as I know nobody has managed to explain how this cycle of change came about. We change throughout our whole lives, and our bodies change a lot, but not as much as these butterflies. Maybe our most astonishing changes are on the inside – our psyche and and our spirit?

Then when I get thinking about these butterflies and wonder where they go when the buddleia are not in bloom I find that many of them are migratory, traveling between Africa and Europe, cycling back and forth between very specific locations. How do they do that? How do they find their way over hundreds, no thousands, of miles? But wait, it’s even more amazing, because for some of them the journey is long it takes several generations of them to complete it. Now how do they do that? How does the great great grandchild of the butterfly which left my garden find its way back to my garden when its parents and grandparents had never ever lived here?

So, here’s what the butterfly in this photo is the symbol of for me – curiosity and the unfathomable depths of our human lack of knowledge and understanding?

So much to learn, so much to discover, so much to understand.

 

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twelve-project-day-three

Day Three of the Twelve project – 12 images, one for each month of 2016, used to create 12 posts, one each day for the 12 days of Christmas.

In March 2016, I visited Marqueyssac gardens in the Dordogne. This wonderful place has several, vastly different areas, from woodland scattered with art works, to winding rocky paths on the edge of a cliff, to this astonishing area of topiary.

I’ve seen lots of topiary elsewhere but usually its the odd bush shaped like an animal, or a small planting of bushes shaped into pyramids or spheres, but here…..well, for a start there are more shaped bushes here in one space than I’ve ever seen before, and, more interestingly, they retain a fundamentally organic form. They don’t just look like bushes fashioned to appear like something else. They retain the diversity you usually associate with Nature. The way they grow together also gives a strong impression of a community, or, from a little further back, a whole organism.

This was my inspiration this year for my writing about the two universal forces – whether we think of them as the forces of chaos and order, of wildness and discipline, or of flow and structure, we find them at work everywhere. And here, in Marqueyssac we see how something utterly entrancing emerges when we get a true integration of these two forces.

This has been such a year of divisions. Dualistic, or binary, thinking seems to be on the rise – you have to choose sides. One is good, the other is bad. You can choose science or art, reason or emotions, right wing or left wing….and so on. When we do that with the fundamental forces we end up emphasising order and control at the expense of freedom and wildness, or we choose structure over flexibility, but actually, in the universe, the greatest beauty, and the release of the greatest potential comes when we aren’t forced to choose one at the expense of the other.

I think the clearest way to think about integration is to consider the relationship between our heart and our lungs. They are completely different organs, grown from distinctly different (“well differentiated”) cells. The heart works best as a heart, and the lungs work best as lungs. Neither would do so well if our body chose between them and supported only the heart, or only the lungs. Turns out that the heart can’t be at its best without the lungs, and the lungs can’t be at their best without the heart. They work together for their own, and for each other’s mutual benefit.

That’s the definition of integration which I like best – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

And that’s what I see when I look at Marqueyssac gardens – discipline and wildness, structure and chaos, beautifully integrated.

Even without any of these thoughts, these gardens would have been wonderful to visit. Take your time. I spent about three or four hours there and could probably have spent longer (if I’d started earlier!) What an experience! It stays with me, not simply as a memory, but as an inspiration, a series of images, a stimulus to my imagination and my thought.

Places like these are the special places on the Earth – they act as our muses. They lift our spirits, and reach deep down into our souls.

 

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pink-and-green

Of all the hundreds of trees and thousands of leaves I saw on my walk the other day, why did I stop and photograph this particular group?

It was difference which caught my eye. The striking pink of these leaves amongst the abundance of green ones stopped me in my tracks.

I love diversity. I find it beautiful.

Everywhere I look I see uniqueness. Every patient who walked through my consulting room door was different. Every one brought a brand new, unique story to tell me. And next time, when they would return, they, too would be different, because all of us change all of the time.

Mary Oliver begins her new collection of essays, “Upstream” with

One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like another tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people – a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes.

Nature loves diversity. Mono-cultures are more vulnerable, less resilient. By making new connections between diverse, well-differentiated individuals, the processes of integration create novelty and stimulates growth.

So I hope this current wave of division and hatred of “the other” which we are witnessing in the world today will diminish.

I hope the current wave of homogenisation which characterises globalisation will be countered by millions of us reclaiming, not just our individual uniqueness, but the beauty and value which we find in diversity.

We need to find a better way to live together than the creation of binary divisions and calls to exclude, remove or eliminate “the other”.

 

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no-straight-lines

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.

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dscn7600

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.

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