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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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There’s an old ruined tower in the middle of one of the vineyards nearby. The other day there I went inside it, looked up, and took this photo.

My first thought was, wow, what a beautiful blue sky! How perfectly framed!

Then I thought, whoah, wait a minute, this is a metaphor isn’t it?

Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we define who “we” are. I’ve been getting disturbed with all the xenophobic comments flying around the world these days. The people who say they don’t like “foreigners” and want them “to go back to their own countries”, or want to “close the borders” to protect “us” from “them”.

See, there’s at least two questions there. There’s how shall we live together? And who is included in that classification “we”?

Imagine you live in that tower. How big does your world appear? Where are your boundaries, your walls? If “we” are the people inside these walls, then “they” are the ones who live outside.

And don’t we all set our walls?

Don’t each of us feel similar to certain others, and maybe even connected to certain others, or maybe even in relationship with certain others?

Are those just the people who live in the same house as us?

Or those in the same street, the same town, or city, or nation state?

Or do we set the walls around those who are similar to us in some other way? Same sex, same religion, same ethnic group, born in the same nation state?

Isn’t the kind of world do we create for ourselves at least partly down to where we set those walls? How narrow we create our perspective? Or how wide?

How do you feel when you broaden your perspective? When you can see further, see wider, see deeper even?

I don’t know about you but I feel I breathe more easily. I feel my body, my mind, my soul, is nourished by the broader, more expansive view.

Let’s take this a wee step further and look at the famous “earthrise” image.

The earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

What if we think of “we” as being all of us who live on that beautiful, small, blue, white and green planet?

Because we do.

Every single atom in your body has previously been shared with other people, or other animals, or other plants, or other rocks or gases in this one small planet.

Every breath you take, draws in molecules from the same atmosphere as every other living, breathing form of life.

Every breath you breathe out contributes to that very same atmosphere.

We all share the same air.

We all share the same water.

We all share the same sunlight.

Don’t we all share the same earth?

Why divide it artificially into boxes? Little boxes marked “my country”, “my race”, “my family”, “my religion”?

If we are going to divide this planet up into these little boxes, then we still have to answer the question of how we can best live together – box to box. From within my walls, to you, within yours.

Here’s two short videos which changed my perspective on these questions…..

 

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Common sense would tell you the world is made of things. We are objects surrounded by other objects. The left hemisphere of the brain is great at narrowing our focus so we can separate some of what we are looking at from its environment, and its connections. So I can stumble across this beautiful dandelion seed-head and focus the lens of my camera right onto “it”. Isn’t “it” gorgeous?

But then and object, or a thing, needs to have some kind of consistency for us to see it. I mean, look what happens a second or two later, when the wind blows –

It’s changed already! And why did it change? Because something happened. Some of the seeds blew away when the wind blew. So if I want to understand this “thing”, this “dandelion” that I’m looking at, I need to see more than what the first image can show me. I need to know that these plants we call dandelions have evolved a method of multiplying and thriving – they have created these astonishing little means of dispersal of their offspring, of their seeds. So when the wind blows, as it always does, these children of the parent plant will fly away to land somewhere else, maybe far away, maybe close by –

and then the cycle starts again with each seed germinating, pushing its roots down into the dark earth, and it’s leaves and flower up to reach the sun, and the bees and the butterflies and who knows how many other kinds of insects will come along and spread the pollen in the yellow flowers to fertilise them and produce these magnificent seed-heads again.

So this is what this object, this thing, called the dandelion does. And it’s hard to know to where to begin its story, but maybe we begin by following one single seed, blown on the wind. We don’t know which way the wind will blow, how far the seed will travel, whether or not the ground it lands on will enable it to germinate and whether or not it will be able to successfully grow into a green leafed, deep rooted, yellow flower and whether or not the insects will cross pollinate it with its neighbours, whether near or far, and produce seeds of its own.

So many unknowns.

But also, and here’s the point, so many happenings.

So many events.

So many occurrences.

This object, this thing, which we call a dandelion. Is it really reasonable to think of it as a thing? Or is it more useful to consider it as so many happenings.

That’s the point I heard the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, make in his interview with Krista Tippett, in an OnBeing podcast. Have a listen. He puts it more beautifully than I do. He says the universe isn’t made of stones, its made of kisses. (Not things, but happenings)

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We have a large mulberry tree growing in the middle of the garden. It’s huge leaves make a perfect canopy to shade you from the glare of the summer sun.

In the autumn they fall massively giving me ample opportunity to enjoy a bit of “rake-y” – the meditative experience of raking up the fallen leaves. I find that deeply satisfying!

In the winter time the tree is bare, all branches and twigs but its shape against the moon at night is entrancing.

Now in the Spring the new leaves are starting to grow. The first of them began to emerge last week. Look at this one! I could have picked one of several dozen like this but I stopped to photograph this one.

It astonishes me.

Out of the end of this stick of a twig first a swelling green bud appears, then these leaves start to unfold themselves. Really they are so tiny compared to how they will look when fully grown. The biggest leaves will be larger than your hand. But for now, this emerging leaf is so small it’s only just begun to acquire the recognisable shape of a leaf.

Look at the colour of it in the sunshine! That light, bright green, somehow just shouts “I’m alive!”

As I looked at it I remembered the time Richard Feynman asked the question “Where do trees come from?” and shocked the listener by answering “They come from the air”. Here’s an article which includes the video of him talking about this very subject. He says most people would answer “They come from the soil” but he says it is more correct to say they come from the air, because they are made mainly of carbon which they capture from carbon dioxide which is in the air, and from water which comes directly from the sky as rain, or through the soil after it’s fallen from the sky.

Isn’t that an astonishing thought? We humans certainly can’t do that. We can’t make solid massive forms like trees out of the thin air.

 

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I was eating some berries at lunch time – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Stopping to take a closer look…….look at the shape of a star on this blueberry.

Well, it turns out this is pretty standard. All blueberries have this element of their appearance.

Have you noticed that before?

Have you seen that little star there before you pop the berry into your mouth?

Noticing is one of the lessons I’ve learned yet again from this little ordinary, everyday experience, but there’s something else here.

That something else for me is a reminder that we are “all made of star stuff”. From the origins of the universe, the time of the energies before the formation of hydrogen and helium, to the evolution of stars, those great powerhouses of fusion producing the first larger elements, magnesium, lithium, carbon….all the way up the Periodic Table to Iron….to the next great leap – the supernovae. As the supernovae exploded they produced all the other known elements of the universe.

From our Sun, to our Solar System, to our precious, tiny Earth, all emerged from these first elements. That carbon, that oxygen, that hydrogen, all the elements you might find in one little blueberry….it all came from the stars.

As best we know, from the beginning of our planet Earth, not a single new natural element has appeared. All of us, from blueberries, to you and me, are made from those original atoms, created by aeons of fusion and fission, of cycles of combining together, and cycles of blowing apart.

Takes my breath away….

And you know what? The blueberries taste great. I enjoyed combining their star stuff into mine…….

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Last November I was invited to address the Faculty of Homeopathy at their Congress in Belfast. I prepared a talk entitled “Images of Health. Pictures and stories” based around some of my own photographs and covering the key principles of health which guided me through my career as a doctor.

Here’s the video of that talk. I hope you enjoy it, find it interesting, or even inspiring. (by the way, if Google pops up any ads along the bottom of the video, just click the “x” box to make them go away 😉 )

I wrote a book to accompany this talk. It’s called “Escape to Reality” and I’ve published it (so far) only as a Kindle e-book. You can find it on Amazon.

 

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Do you ever look outside and see a grey sky and rain and think, shame, “it’s not a nice day”? I do.

But the other day when I caught myself saying that I thought, hang on, when the rain falls on the flowers it makes them extra specially beautiful, I think I’ll go out and take some photos.

Here are some of my favourite ones.

I think the rain magnifies their beauty, not making them similar in any way, but highlighting how unique each and every one is.

I also love the image of the single rain drop. It’s like a jewel. I’m never finished finding water extraordinarily wonderful. And, in a certain sense, water is never finished finding us extraordinarily wonderful either, is it?

Here’s to the sparkling beauty of uniqueness.

Here’s to the magic of water.

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