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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

What do you see when you look up at a sky like this?

The first things to catch my eye are the patterns in the clouds. I just love seeing these ripples, waves and swirls. I can delight in densities and the transparencies. I love how the blue beyond shows through and appears as lakes, streams and rivers in the white land of the cloud.

Then the next thing that happens for me is noticing that some of these patterns here look familiar. They remind me of something else, in the same way that sketches and doodles do, in the same way that paintings and photographs do. My eyes are drawn to the blue zone in the cloud which I can easily see as a pair of lungs – well, I’m sure that’s at least in part due to my working as a doctor all my life – but the idea of a pair of lungs breathing this cloud into existence delights me! Bear with me for a moment longer, because, and this comes and goes for me, I can then see what looks like a head above “the lungs” with a face looking out towards the right hand side of the image. Sometimes that looks SO clear to me that it almost spooks me out! And then I look again and I just can’t see it.

If you’ve been reading the posts on this blog for a bit, you’ll know what’s coming next……the image sets of a train of thought for me.

This time what I start to think about is creation.

I love to see clouds emerge, change, and disappear before my very eyes. So often they look like a work of art, like a piece of performance art. I see it happen and it amazes and delights me.

This, I think, is the essence of the Universe – creation.

The Universe has been creating since its beginning. As best we know, first elements, like hydrogen and helium, then clouds and densities which form into stars, those sources of all the elements we know….and so on, with the rest of the Universe Story…..right up to the creation of the Earth – as far was we know, the only planet like this in the entirety of existence – yeah, I know, people tell you that there are chances there are other Earth-like planets out there somewhere, but we haven’t found any yet.

And on this Earth, creation continues, with the elements forming into molecules, molecules combining and synthesising to create cells, and so to living organisms, no two organisms living identical lives……to the most complex of living organisms in the universe (as best we know)….human beings, no two of whom have ever been, or ever will be, identical.

And so to this day, this day which has never existed before, and will never exist again, where every event, every experience, every body, is new today.

Creation. It’s the essence of the Universe. It’s the essence of Life. The constant, never-ending, creation of novelty, of emergence, of uniqueness.

Yep, all that from a cloud…..how’s that for a creative thought?

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I noticed this little profusion of diversity at the edge of a pavement the other day. Now that I’m reviewing the photo I see really stark contrasts between the natural and the built environments.

On the right hand side here we can see a drain cover cast in heavy iron and imprinted with regular rows and columns of slightly raised boxes. It even looks heavy. It looks rigid. Fixed. You would bet that these covers were produced in a factory. It’s likely that thousands of these almost identical objects were churned out from a production line using a template, or a mould, so that they are as similar as possible. If the factory has “quality control” it’s likely that any which are significantly different from the others will be rejected. The goal is standardisation, efficiency, same-ness.

Human beings are great at this kind of work. We take raw materials from Nature and beat them into the products which we can mass produce. These things are useful. Look at the other useful things human beings have made in this picture. The concrete poured to create kerb stones, drainage paths, and gutters. The tarmac laid and levelled to make roads. The houses built with stone, cement, wood and glass. These are just some of the things which make up our built environment.

But taking centre spot in this image is Life. Bursting out of this manmade environment is a flourishing, a profusion of colour. A tiny, micro-system of flowers. Somehow we know nobody planted them there. Nobody sowed the seeds there. They got there of their own accord, blown in the wind, dropped by animals, carried along by streams of water after a rain. Then they took their chance and growth kicked in. First of all just small green shoots, which grew quickly and diversified. Each developing according to the typical shape of a plant of its species. They look chaotic, disordered, different. You know they haven’t been manufactured.

It doesn’t take long for wild unpredictable nature to make its mark. That’s the essence of Life. That’s the underlying truth of all organisms, including we humans. We grow in unpredictable, diverse ways to create complex communities of Life.

You know, don’t you, that we need all of this. The ability to act on opportunity, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the ability to form complex networks of relationships, and the ability to create the environments in which we live.

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One of the signature plants here in the Charente is the Hollyhock (“rose trémière”). They are astonishing plants which surge upwards of two metres and they produce glorious brightly coloured flowers. It’s not just their rate of growth and their ultimate towering stature which impresses me though.

What really attracts me to them is how surprising they are. You never know, from year to year, just where one is going to grow, you never know which ones are going to grow to the greatest heights and you have no way of knowing just when they are going to produce these fabulous flowers, not only at the tops of their stems, but apparently randomly along the length of each plant.

In a sense, I see them as the local Charentaise version of the Japanese cherry blossoms. In Japan the appearance of the cherry blossom is much anticipated and celebrated. More than their beauty, the blossom is a symbol of transience which inspires people to “savour the day” – because, like the blossom, nothing in life will last. It’s the transience of the cherry blossom which makes it so meaningful.

Well, for me, I equally anticipate the appearance of the hollyhocks and their glorious, towering flowers. I think because each and every one of these amazing plants stands alone, they inspire me to think about transience in a similar way to cherry blossom, but they do something else too. They remind me, every time, of how the future path of any individual life is so unpredictable.

Why should that be something to relish?

The essence of my working life as a generalist medical doctor was to meet with patients one at a time. I’d look forward to every Monday morning because it would be the start of a working week filled with people who would come into my room, sit down, and tell me the most amazing, unique stories.

No two people told the same story.

Understanding a patient’s story is a way of helping them to make sense of what’s happening in their life. It’s also part of what doctors call making a diagnosis. I always saw diagnosis as a level of understanding, not a conclusion, not a label, not a category to place a patient into, not a starting point in a protocol, but the beginning of an understanding.

With that initial understanding would come some sense of the past. In other words it could be the start of making sense of how the present illness had come about, what events and circumstances had contributed to it. But what also came was an opening up of a set of possible/potential futures. Doctors call such an analysis a prognosis. I’d look ahead, taking what knowledge and experience I had of people, of disease, of the typical life history of certain illnesses, and see this unique, particular patient in that context.

Doctors have to be careful when making a prognosis. It’s always only an estimate, an informed expectation. But at the level of the particular, the unique, the individual patient, the path ahead would only be revealed over time.

Remembering that kept reminding me to be humble.

Remembering that kept reminding me that in Life, we never have ALL the information. We always make our understandings and our predictions on the basis of partial, and limited information. There will ALWAYS be more to discover, more to learn, more to learn about everyone.

There’s a fairly new term in biology and philosophy to describe how the future unfolds this way. It’s called “emergence”. Emergence is the development of new patterns, new behaviours, new structures, which could not have been predicted in detail from the prior knowledge. It’s typical of all living organisms.

The individual hollyhock plants remind me of that. They demonstrate this “emergence” beautifully.

Their daily growth astonishes me. Their ultimate size astounds me. Their particular flowers amaze me. I know each seed holds this kind of potential, but I have no way of knowing which particular seed will grow a plant of this actual size, in this particular place in the garden, the driveway, the street, or the roadside.

See, for me, not knowing what lies ahead isn’t primarily a frightening thing. Sure, it’s possible to begin to imagine all the things which can go wrong, to press the fear and panic buttons, but that’s rarely very helpful. Instead, I found, and I still find, I look forward primarily with hope and a positive expectation, and if things don’t turn out that way, I reassess, take stock and consider a different future. It’s a process, not an algorithm leading to an end point. It’s a way of living, deepening and broadening knowledge and understanding at the level of the individual whilst looking forward, with realistic hope, as we interact with, and adapt to, the present.

It’s great to be astonished every day.

I love to be amazed and delighted at the unfolding present. I find it thrilling to witness the future making itself known through this phenomenon of emergence.

Hollyhocks do all that for me. Are there particular plants which are special for you? And why?

 

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Just over a month ago we had a brief but intense storm which did a bit of damage, including snapping the stem of this tomato plant. Most of the plant was at right angles to its base, but there was a thin sliver of stem still connected. So I got out a rather unorthodox gardening tool – gaffer tape – and taped it up around the break. (Reminded me of putting plasters on broken arms and legs!) And look at it now!

We had the first of the ripe tomatoes the other day and they were delicious.

Now part of me is just amazed at the resilience of plants, but mostly it makes me think about a fundamental characteristic of all living creatures, including human beings.

A new concept in science, and biology, started circulating a couple of decades ago. It goes by the name of “complex adaptive systems“. Basically, this applies to all forms of life because they all have vast interconnected networks of cells and molecules. When you get these vast networks certain characteristics appear, and, in the case of living organisms that includes “self-making capacity”, termed “autopoiesis” by Maturna and Varela. That means the ability to make itself, which encompasses growth, repair and reproduction. I find it a more useful term than the old “homeostasis” used in biology and Medicine, which suggested the maintenance of a stable, internal environment, but didn’t capture the key features of repair, growth and reproduction.

There’s an older term, not used very much in Medicine (I don’t know why), which is the ability to “self-heal”. I think self-healing is just an aspect of autopoiesis.

This is exactly what the story of this tomato plant demonstrates. The capacity of a living organism to heal, to repair, and to grow again – given the right support. And here’s the nub of what I want to say – that’s what we doctors actually do – we support self-healing. At least, that’s what we do when we don’t cause harm!

Yet it’s common to think that doctors can heal, that they can cure diseases. And it’s common for people to believe that drugs do that. They heal. They cure. Except they don’t.

Neither doctors nor drugs heal or cure.

What they do (optimally) is support self-healing. It is ALWAYS the organism which heals itself. There is no healing, no cure, without autopoiesis doing what it does. Which isn’t to say it can always do that all by itself. Nope, it might need help. That help, however, is not a substitute for self-repair and self-healing.

Good treatments can do one of two things – they can nurture the conditions for self-healing, or, they can directly stimulate some aspect of it.

Maybe it would be good to remind ourselves of that. The power of healing lies in the natural functions of the complex adaptive system. I think it’s worthwhile considering that when undertaking any form of treatment. Is this treatment going to nurture the conditions for my self-healing, or harm them? Is it going to directly stimulate some aspect of my self-healing, and, if not, then what is it doing?

Of course, there’s also a lot more to think about than just treatments. What nurtures the conditions for autopoiesis in my life? And what impairs it? That takes us into a whole related area of the environment, of food, movement, relationships, adequate housing and finance……what comes up for you when you start to consider that?

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This morning, at dawn, the clouds in the sky turned pink….a pink echoed in the flowers of this bush in the garden.

Pleasing, isn’t it?

It got me thinking about how often we come across this in life…..where there are resonances, where one phenomenon seems so “in tune” with another. When we encounter them I think we stumble across what is Beautiful, Good, and True. It thrills the mind, delights the heart, and enlivens the body.

Think for a moment about how we function, we human beings. There are so many individual cells within our body that nobody can count them. Billions of them. And here’s the amazing thing. They work together all the time. When our body is in a state of good health, all these cells, all our tissues, all our organs and our systems are working in harmony with each other.

Some people say they are “integrated”. What does that mean? I like Dan Siegel‘s definition –

integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

Notice the two elements of that definition.

“Mutually beneficial bonds”. Isn’t this a fundamental fact of life? We exist in relationship. As does every single cell and part of our being. A particular kind of relationship – a mutually beneficial one. We are perhaps the most social of creatures, wired and genetically determined to form bonds with others. If a newborn baby didn’t do that life wouldn’t last very long. We need the loving attention and care of others from the moment of our very first breath.

The second part of the definition is “well differentiated parts”. Uniqueness and diversity are also facts of life. No two cells are fully identical, not when we consider them in their contexts of time and space. We don’t develop healthy hearts and minds by making all the heart cells and brain cells the same. We need them to be different. But we need them to work in harmony with each other. Not in competition with each other.

When we live in harmony with others and with the rest of the planet I suspect we give ourselves the best possible chance of health and thriving. In fact, is this not the origin of “dis-ease”? Where we fall out of harmony with ourselves and our world? Maybe we need more emphasis on resonance and harmony, and less on competition and individualism…..

 

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I recently visited the Chateau de Clos Lucé in Amboise, in the Loire valley. This is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. He was invited to live there by François I in 1516. The king provided Leonardo with a place to live, 700 gold ecus a year, and financed his works, in turn for the pleasure of his company and daily discussions with him. Leonardo only lived three more years, dying in 1519, which is why, on this 500th anniversary year of his death, the chateau is hosting a major exhibition of his work. (As an aside I find it fascinating and inspiring that Leonardo was given free range “to dream and work” – what kind of society could we have if we funded creatives and academics to “dream and work” together, without goals, funding applications or publication demands?)

There are a number of Leonardo quotations around the chateau and the gardens. This one caught my eye –

You know that medicines when well used restore health to the sick: they will be well used when the doctor together with his understanding of their nature shall understand also what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are. Know these well and you will know their opposites; and when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy.

After a lifetime career in Medicine, I’m less sure now that medicines do “restore health to the sick”. I think it’s biology which restores health. Human beings are complex adaptive systems, and all such organisms have both “self-healing” and “self-making” capacities. The best medicines stimulate those natural processes of healing. The next best support the processes. Many of the ones we use reduce symptoms, or reverse an imbalance in the body, both of which are reasonable goals and acts, but are they directly involved in restoring health to the sick? Do you think that’s just semantics? I don’t. I’d have a hope for the future that we’d develop the treatments which really do support and stimulate the natural processes of healing, and that’s what Leonardo says, in other language, at the end of that quotation – “when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy”.

When what’s the case?

Oh, yes, understand “what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are”.

Ah! Well, there lies both the problem and the signposts to the solutions…..

A couple of years into my work as a General Practitioner I started to wonder what health is. Nobody taught us what health is at university, and the clinical training of a young doctor focuses on learning diagnostic and therapeutic techniques – identifying pathologies and treating disease states. I went back and looked at my Clinical Medicine textbooks. I searched the index for “health” – no entries. Nope, not one. That set me off on an exploration, looking for an understanding of what health is. The medical school textbooks were no help. Oh yes, there was that old World Health Organisation definition –

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

But all that really does is substitute the word “well-being” for “health”. It does suggest health is multidimensional – physical, mental and social – and it does suggest health is something positive, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But does it really take us much further that irritating “Brexit means Brexit”?

While researching the issue of the absence of health in medical textbooks, I discovered there was a kind of parallel anomaly….biology textbooks didn’t have a definition of life. Really? Well, yes, it wasn’t uncommon to find a biology textbook without the word life appearing in the index.

So what is life?

One of the more satisfying descriptions I read was from Maturana and Varela’s, living organisms demonstrate a “self-making” capacity, which they termed “autopoiesis” and that lead me down the path of the complexity scientists and their definition of “complex adaptive systems”. I still find that a good starting place.

That leaves us with two more areas to explore, according to Leonardo. What is man? and What is a constitution? Remember he was writing 500 years ago, and we would probably now say “What is a human?”, rather than “what is man?”. Let’s leave constitution aside for just now, as it’s pretty embedded in the issues of what is a human and what is health?

What is a human being?

There have been a couple of books published recently which put this question centre stage again. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Team Human“, and Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future“. Both of these books are concerned about the impact of technology on human beings and on our societies. Rushkoff says –

being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

In other words, he focuses on the innate sociability and need to act co-operatively in human beings. I’ve heard Paul Mason say at least two interesting definitions of what is a human – human beings “use energy to counter entropy” – in other words we are a creative species. And human beings are “co-operative, imaginative and linguistic” – the combination of which makes us a unique species.

All of these ideas are interesting to me. And I find it refreshing that these questions are coming to the fore now. Surely this is a timely and positive response to the mechanical, data and statistics driven reductionism which is so utterly de-humanising.

I continue to explore what it means to be human, and I find some of the more impressive answers in the works of philosophers, from the classical schools to Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze (to name just a few!)

Of course, I could write about this for hours! Ha! Ha! But I’ll stop here and leave the possibility that these are questions you might like to pursue for yourself.

Let me summarise – because I think this is a lifetime project as well as potentially the basis for a whole curriculum –

  • What is Life?
  • What is a human being?
  • What is health?

The answers which appear from those studies could, possibly, give us the remedies of the future – the ones which actually do “restore health to the sick” – and, yes, more than that, allow us to create healthier societies filled with people who fulfil their potentials, creatively, co-operatively, and artistically…..can I even say “spiritually?”

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We’ve had a very hot, dry spell recently here in the Charente. Temperatures rising to the mid or high 30s (centigrade) each day which made the leaves of the plants curl up and wilt. Then this last week we’ve had rain, wind and storms. Yikes! What chance have they got?

Well, look what all that varied weather has done to this bush in the garden.

First it suddenly bloomed, going from zero flowers to dozens of them over about 48 hours. Then the wind and rain has knocked off more than a few of them.

But when I walked outside yesterday evening and the bush caught my eye I was transfixed.

Just look how beautiful this is! Not just the bush itself but the way the fallen flowers have made a pinkish purple circular rug on the grass around it.

This is the kind of beauty which Nature makes.

In “The Great Work”, Thomas Berry talks about the interplay between discipline and wildness…..between order and chaos (or disorder). This is a great example, I think, of the beauty the wildness and disorder brings…..effortlessly.

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