Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Did you ever come across an ancient Chinese philosophical concept, “Li”? I’m no scholar of Chinese philosophy but the sense I make of this idea is that there are invisible patterns, structures and forces throughout the universe which shape the forms that we see. (If you understand this better than me, and you think I’m mis-representing “li” please explain in the comments section)

It does seem to me that there are certain patterns in Nature which seem pretty widespread. This one which is a “honeycomb” pattern in rock in the West of Scotland is one of these, and, for me, it’s one of the most fundamental.

It’s a bit like a web, or a net, and really it’s simply connections and points of connections. The connections are the thin almost thread like pieces and the points of connection are where two or more of these pieces meet. This is the basis of all networks – we call the points of connection, “nodes”, and the lines represent the ways in which nodes influence each other.

Simple nodes receive information, energy or materials from other nodes, and pass them on. More complex nodes do some processing, so that the exact information, energy or materials which it receives, leave it in somewhat different form.

One of the places we see this structure is in our brains – we have billions (yes, billions) of special cells in our brain. We call them “neurones” and their main purpose is to transfer information from one place to another. The neurones all meet up with other neurones at specialised junction points called “synapses”. Every single neurone is connected this way to several thousand (yes, several thousand) other neurones. You can imagine pretty easily that the permutations of firing, communicating neurones, neuronal pathways and neural networks in the brain might not be infinite, but it’s so gobsmackingly (is that a word?) large that we literally can’t actually envision it in its totality. I’m sure I once read someone say that the number of whole brain states, determined by which neurones are firing is greater than the number of visible stars in the universe. Well, don’t know if that’s quite right, but it sure gives you a way of imagining the immensity of it.

Another place we see this structure is in the human body. Think of each of your several billion cells as a node, and once you realise that every single one of those cells lives in constant relationship with all the others (either directly or indirectly, cos that’s the way a network works) then you get a good understanding of why we need to think of our health and wellbeing holistically. None of our parts live in isolation. In fact all our cells, all our tissues and all our organs, are continuously, dynamically relating to others by establishing and maintaining “integrative” relationships – that is “Mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts”. There’s a key point to see here – the most fundamental kind of relationship in the universe is collaborative, integrative and co-operative.

Yes, competition exists. Of course it does. But we have been duped into believing that competition is THE key relationship in the universe…….THE driver of evolution. It’s important and it’s real, but by itself competition could not produce evolution, could not produce Life, cannot describe reality. We need relationships which are essentially integrative, fundamentally well-meaning, mutually supportive, collaborative, to do that.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could all benefit from this simple shift of understanding – we need to put “collaborative, integrative, co-operative” relationships at the heart of our decision making.

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I’m pretty keen on taking photos of webs, especially on a misty morning or after it’s been raining.

This is one of my most favourite photos of a web. Actually you can hardly see the strands of the web itself, which makes it even more interesting……it’s like the underlying structure which gives shape to the whole image is invisible, or almost so. And I think life is like that. There are underlying structures, forms and shaping forces to everything, but mostly that’s all invisible!

What we see most in this photo is a myriad of water droplets – each one of them acting as a prism or a lens. Look closely at any of them and you can see that they are showing you an upside down image of the surrounding world. Isn’t that fascinating as well as beautiful?

Because what that makes me think is how each of us is like one of these droplets. Each of us has our own unique perspective upon the world. Every single one of us sees and experiences the world from our individual and different subjective point of view.

But we are all connected. And we are all living in the same world. So most of what we see in any of these little lenses is the same. We live shared lives. We experience shared phenomena.

That takes me back to my favourite – “and not or” – we are at the one and the same time having unique, individual experiences, AND shared, common, connected ones.

It’s not a matter of choice.

If we forget either one of these apparent polarities then we fail to grasp reality. Reality is a vast, inter-connected, largely invisible web of unique, individual events and experiences, constantly changing, constantly interacting, always astonishing and, utterly beautiful.

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I took this photo because I liked the look of the boat with the distant hills on the horizon but ever since I uploaded it to my photo library every time I look at it I think “What’s that boat doing on that side of the wall?” Because the sea is on the other side of the wall!

But actually this is no accident. The boat has been placed here, high up above the water line and behind this wall, for protection.

As I look at it again today I’m seeing it in the context of the new variant Covid, the exponentially rising rates of infection in many countries and a new round of restrictions and lockdowns coming into effect around the world. All of which gets me thinking about protection.

Really, as best I understand it at this point, there is only one way to catch this virus – you get it from somebody else. The more people you share space and time with each day, the greater your risk of getting infected. The more you share space and time with others indoors and with poor ventilation, the greater your risk. All that isn’t really rocket science. So, at a personal level, protection involves avoiding contact with other people as much as you can.

OK, so that’s just not possible for many, many people who have to work to keep us all alive and/or to keep themselves alive, which is why many people ask our governments to financially support those whose places of work are being closed down, and why the authorities have to work hard to make workplaces as safe as possible for those who do have to work. Of course, we can all help protect those who have to work by driving down the community infection rates just by restricting our own personal contacts.

I’m not going to get into the details of other measures in this post, but, more than ever, isn’t it clear now that our societies need to change? We are too vulnerable. Or to put it another way, we are not protecting populations well enough. We need to do better – that, not any technical fix, is our only “way out”, our only real lasting “protection”.

So, I just want to say again – lets massively improve our health care services – we do not have enough facilities, enough nurse, enough doctors. Let’s start training the next generation of staff now – it’s going to take at least five years to get them ready. Let’s recruit and train the teachers and trainers to train the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals we desperately need. Because we have all been living with inadequate health services. Every country could do better.

And, secondly, let’s start NOW to address the underlying vulnerabilities – lets deal with poverty, poor housing, inequality, prejudice, and the environment – including our agriculture, our food supply chain and the issue of clean air.

That would all be a START. What would you add?

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Many years ago I came across this little pool of water with oil spread across its surface. I was entranced by the beauty of it, and I still am. It looks like a colourful map of the atmosphere, or of temperature flows over the surface of the Earth. It immediately reminded me of one of the very first experiments we did in Chemistry class at High School – the lesson was entitled “A little goes a long way”. First we put a few grains of potassium permanganate into a huge glass tub filled with water and watched in amazement as the purple rapidly spread from a tiny dot to colour the entire tank of water. Then we were given talc to sprinkle on top of the water in another big glass tub. It quickly spread out to cover the entire surface with a thin film of greyish white powder. We then dropped a single drop of oil onto the talc and in an instant the oil pushed every grain of talc out to the edges of the tub instantly “clearing” the water’s surface. You can tell how impressed I was…..this was when I was 12 years old and I’m 66 now!

In the years since I was at school, and even in the decade and half or so since I took this photo, we’ve become much more aware of climate change and the impact of carbon consumption on the whole planet. So, now I look at this beautiful image and I see an addiction. The addiction of industrialised humanity to oil. I think you’re probably aware by now of just how much countries have subsidised the big oil companies and how they continue to do so. You’re probably also aware of the massive lobbying efforts of Big Oil to persuade politicians to continue to support them, and to resist calls to reduce carbon consumption. Here in France a couple of years ago a government proposal to slightly increase the tax on petrol and diesel led to an outpouring of anger and the creation of the “Gilets Jaunes” movement, with roundabouts occupied throughout the country, motorways blocked, toll stations burnt to the ground, and refineries blockaded. The Saturday city demos continued right up until Covid struck. The protestors complaints spiralled in all directions but it was the increase in the price of oil which sparked the whole movement.

Clearly we are not going to be able to kick our oil addiction unless we simultaneously address poverty, low wages, inequality and economic insecurity. But we are also going to have to develop and spread non-carbon or low-carbon alternatives as quickly and as much as we can. I suppose that’s at the heart of the proposals in many countries for a “Green New Deal” – at least in principle.

I’m a big fan of “biomimicry” which is the creation of technologies which emerge from learning about how things work in Nature. Nature, after all, does not create waste or pollution. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide from the air, and send out oxygen for us all to breathe. We need to learn how to be more like the other creatures and living organisms on the this planet…..thriving without creating pollution or destroying the ecosystem.

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Look at these two images.

I took this photo at Achnabreck in the Kilmartin Glen in the West of Scotland many years ago. The Kilmartin Glen has hundreds of cup and ring marked rocks, standing stones and cairns dating back 5000 years to prehistoric times.

As I wandered around the rocks, taking photos, on a typical showery day in Scotland, I noticed that when I looked at some of the water filled indentations that they looked concave, but when I moved to the other side of the rock the water now seemed to be convex. I’m no expert in optics so I could’t explain the phenomenon but when I got home and uploaded this photo, I noticed that if I flipped it 180 degrees I was able to replicate what I’d seen.

So those two photos above are just one photo – with the one flipped 180 degrees to the other. I find this quite mesmerising…….whatever the, probably simple, optical/physical explanation. Every single time I look at these two images side by side I am inspired to think about how different “the same” world looks when we change our perspective.

Maybe this is a variation on the old “glass half full, glass half empty” idea, but in this case, sunken vs swollen water in indentations.

Actually, just by itself this is one of my favourite photos of all time. First of all, if it hadn’t been raining then the cup markings wouldn’t have filled with water and would have looked very, very different. Something else which highlights the contingent nature of all of our experiences – every event, every experience is unique, because no two sets of time, place, weather, environment, mood, mental state, place in a personal narrative are ever identical. Secondly, how on earth did people with just stones as tools make these marks? And isn’t that one which isn’t a circle, a footprint? A footprint in rock?? Thirdly, why did they make these marks? We don’t know. There are amazing spirals and loops and spirals with tails scattered on rock surfaces throughout this valley – but nobody knows why. Are they maps? Do they tell a story? Are they the marks of particular tribes? Are they symbols of spiritual signficance? Are they art? Are they doodles?? We don’t know. And why here? Why in the Kilmartin Glen (I’ve found that not many people I’ve met know about the Kilmartin Glen but it’s one of my most favourite, most special places in the whole of Scotland)

Here, in the last couple of days of 2020, with yet another wave of the virus on the up, and vaccination programmes just beginning to be rolled out, I’m sure we’ll all be taking some time to reflect on this most unusual year, a year we will never forget.

As I reflect, I’m hoping to do two things – acknowledge the losses and the difficulties of this year, then affirm the gains and opportunities – because this, maybe more obviously than most years, is a year when so much has happened and so much has changed that it feels a year of special significance – perhaps a turning point, perhaps a year of revelation, perhaps a year of re-evaluation, perhaps a year of enlightenment – because this year surely seems a year when we human beings were given the opportunity to change direction.

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In my two previous posts I’ve considered how our experience is altered by the frames through which we live – through which we perceive and engage with daily reality. These frames, psychologically, are fashioned out of our beliefs, our values, our habits and our memories.

This photo is of a picture frame at a stall in an antiques market in the middle of Aix en Provence. What always strikes me first when I see this photo is how the frame is the dominant source of colour in the image. I’ve actually looked at this and wondered if it was a black and white photo with only the picture frame coloured later on, but it isn’t. I haven’t edited or changed anything from the original shot. When you look more carefully you can see plenty of colour to the right hand side of the image. Still, that contrast between the golden frame and the pretty monochrome pavement, tree and the left hand side of the background really, really makes the frame stand out.

So, I got to thinking a bit more about this idea of the frame, fashioned from our beliefs, values, habits and memories, and how that plays such a role in our lived reality. The first thing that came to mind was the way in which our two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently. The left focuses in on parts and details, emphasises objects, measurements, and data. The right is more focused on the whole, on the connections, relationships, the “between-ness” of everything, and on the particular, the unique and the specific. Along with that goes a predilection for mechanisms and machines with the left hemisphere and a predilection for nature and human beings with the right. At least, that’s one way of summarising some of what Iain McGilchrist describes in “The Master and His Emissary”.

The question then is which hemisphere are we in the habit of using most? And I think, again agreeing with McGilchrist, that there is no doubt the left hemisphere approach to the world has become the dominant one. We live in a world where we give priority to data, measurements, objects, control and grasping, to machines and computers, to industrialisation and automation. But this pandemic has shown us the importance of understanding how everything connects, of the importance of the human, and the unique, of our need for care and for each other. So, maybe one way we need to move forward into 2021 is by building the strengths and powers of the right hemisphere “frame” of values, beliefs, and habits. Maybe our way forward is going to require more imagination, more flexibility, more adaptability than the dominant “frame” the left hemisphere has provided for us?

The next thing that comes up for me is about our shared values, beliefs and habits – our structural ones which have produced modern day capitalism, our exploitative relationship to “Nature” which we see as something outside of us, something to be dominated. What if we tackled those two issues together?

What if we explored a different kind of economics and politics which would reduce inequality, reduce exploitation and injustice? What if shifted from having money as our god to Nature as our god? To see Nature as something we are a part of, not apart from. To see Nature as a source of infinite wonder, of an enormous resource, not to be consumed but to learn from? What would the world look like through that frame? How would that change our values, beliefs and habits?

Well, that’s what I want to explore in the months ahead. I want to learn more, understand more, and share more about the real world, the real world seen through the frame of connectedness, uniqueness, diversity, equality, kindness and wonder.

How about you? What values, beliefs and habits do you think dominate the frames through which you engage with the world? And which of those do you think are shared with others? Is there anything there you’d like to change?

In fact, more than that, what if you were to imagine your “golden frame”? Your ideal, your dream, frame? The way you’d most like to engage with the world and the shared beliefs, values and habits which you’d like to spread most widely? What would that look like?

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This is just an iPhone photo at night, so not a great quality shot, but what it captures is a special moment. You can see the crescent moon quite clearly, and now that I live in the countryside I’m constantly aware of the current phase of the moon. I notice when its a “new moon”, when it’s a waxing crescent, a waning crescent and when it is full. That wasn’t the case when I lived in a city. I guess when we live in a city, what with all the light pollution at night, as well as air pollution which seems to make the sky more obscure, that the phases of the moon are just not obvious. But there’s an element of attention too. City life = working life for me, and a lot of the time while working my attention and thoughts were absorbed in all the important things of the day. Consequently, noticing such things as the phase of the moon, slipped away from me.

I like that I am more aware of it now, because it gives me an ongoing sense of connectedness to one of the rhythms of the universe, that cycle of phases of our moon.

But there’s an even greater rhythm revealed in this particular photo – if you look at the sky at the twelve o’clock position relative to the plum tree, you might make out a star – or if you look really carefully you’ll see that it’s two stars, very close to each other. Well, they aren’t stars really, they are planets. Jupiter and Saturn. From our perspective here on Earth they seem to be occupying almost the same small square of space in the sky. They haven’t appeared this close to each other for hundreds of years and won’t again for another several hundred years. That makes this particular pattern special. It’s the only time I’ll ever see this in my lifetime. Generations of my ancestors never saw this, and generations of my offspring will never see it either.

Yet, it impresses me so much, not just because of its uniqueness, or, that it is so rare. What impresses me ever more is how this is part of a cycle of the universe which is way, way greater than I am. It is a rhythm, a pattern, a cycle which loops through generations….in both directions. That fact really strikes me. It humbles me. It puts me, viscerally, not just intellectually, in touch with the fact that I am part of something much, much greater than I am.

I find that intensely reassuring. I find it transcendent. I find it incredibly satisfying.

I also find it beautiful.

This is a great example of when the night sky reminds us that we are a part of flows, of patterns, of rhythms and cycles which are far, far bigger than we are. Isn’t that “awesome”, “inspiring”, “enlightening”?

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I worked for about 40 years as a doctor. I’ve studied I don’t know how many diets in that time. I’ve seen “miracle” diets come and go, I have seen diets for losing weight, diets for preventing heart disease, diets for preventing cancer…..it goes on and on. And confusingly over the years there have been totally contradictory pieces of advice – especially about carbohydrates and about fat.

However, here’s the good news…..time and time again, the evidence keeps returning to a pretty simple fact – the more your diet is plant based the better. It’s good old fruit and veg which comes out top again and again and again. I know, there are lots of other issues and nuances, and it doesn’t ALL come down to fruit and veg, but if you are thinking of doing one thing to “improve” your diet in 2021 – eat more plants!

These photos are of some of the harvest we got this year from our little veggie patch. We don’t have a big patch but it’s very productive. I use compost I make from the grass cuttings etc in the garden, and I don’t use any chemicals at all. I live in South West France in an area famous for vineyards where the grapes are grown for cognac production. I’m sure that wherever your live there will be different plants which grow well, which I can’t grow, and others I get in abundance which won’t grow where you are.

As well as geography and environment affecting what you can grow, I believe that we all need individualised diets too – we don’t all enjoy the same flavours, some of us are allergic to certain foodstuffs, and each of us have particular needs in terms of nutrition. But I’m sticking with this one single piece of advice because it applies whatever the variations – eat more plants!

I highly recommend growing some fruit and/or veg if you can. You don’t need a huge piece of ground, and if you live in a city there may be the possibility of getting an allotment, or, increasingly, citizens are getting together to get permission from local authorities to create community gardens where anyone can plant, tend and harvest some fruit and/or veg. See if such a thing exists in your area, and if it doesn’t, maybe you can initiate one…..hey, someone’s got to make the first move!

There is an additional health benefit which comes from growing your own fruit and veg – being outside, exercising and the whole cycle of seeding, tending and harvesting are all good for us. And don’t worry about not managing to become self-sufficient – pretty much nobody is going to become totally self-sufficient from a garden, an allotment or a community project. Just do it for fun, for the bonus of some additional variety to the fresh food in your diet, and there will be a spin off – you’ll become more aware and more informed about ALL the food you consume. For example, the first time I ate a radish I had grown it almost blew my head off! I had no idea radishes could have such a powerful taste! And I’ve had several other mind opening experiences as my taste buds discover flavours for the first time.

So, eat more plants. If you can, grow some plants. And just enjoy the flavours. Honestly, it’ll be a good start.

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This is one of my most favourite photos of a seed head. When I was a child I guess the “dandelion clock” was the seed head we all knew best, but as I’ve got older I’ve realised there are an immense diversity of “wind dispersal” structures and systems used by a variety of plants. I do find them truly beautiful. But they do more than entrance me, they inspire me too, and perhaps this one more than most.

I love the whole phenomenon of wind dispersal. This is the way a plant handles that most crucial aspect of life for any species – expanding its reach physically (to other fields, other landscapes, even other continents), and expanding its reach temporally (by reproduction – by reaching into the future and create the generations to come).

No species of life would survive unless it did this – yet look at the way these plants handle it – not by setting goals, measuring and calculating and trying to control all the variables – but by trusting to the planet – by holding their seed high and waiting for the wind to come, pick them up and carry them to their future destinations.

This is SO different from our drive to be in control of everything. I’m not saying our controlling drives aren’t useful, I’m sure they are, but I am saying we should learn from the rest of the natural world sometimes and pick up this principle of letting go, of trusting that when you live in harmony with the rest of Nature, then you will survive and thrive.

Of course this is not a way for we humans to procreate and raise children – leaving them outside for the wind to carry them away! But that’s not what I’m saying…..we are not adapted to survive through the specific method of wind dispersal! No, what I think we can learn from this is the deeper, more widely applicable lesson – that we should live in harmony with, in tune with, in association with, in collaboration with, the rest of the natural world, rather than seeing the rest of the planet as something outside of ourselves just waiting to be plundered, consumed and controlled.

But there’s something else in this particular seed head – that glorious spiral shape. It seems to me that the spiral, looping model of time makes a lot of sense….the way the cycles of Nature appear – from seasons, to moon phases, to birth, growth, maturity, decline, death and birth again……

A spiral is also a very dynamic shape – it looks like it is moving. It captures that truth that change is constant, that nothing every stays the same.

I hope you find something inspiring in this photo today – it really is one of my favourites.

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Here’s what Nature does. She reaches out.

Here’s what Life does. Life expands.

There are many stories of the Universe, many Creation stories. We discover the Universe in those stories. We tap into Creation. We uncover the themes, the characteristics, the features, the behaviours and the phenomena of reality in those stories.

One of those stories is the story of Evolution. It’s the story of Life on Earth. In this story there is one particularly striking feature – there is always more life. Life creates life. Life replicates, reproduces, expands, connects, complexifies, diversifies, multiplies.

Look at these two photos – on the left, a plant with two sunbursts of seeds held up as high into the air as it can. Reaching for the sky, reaching for the Sun, reaching for the wind, reaching out for other creatures, birds and other animals, to come along, to help her spread her seeds, to send her offspring far and wide, seeking new places to settle, take root, and to thrive. On the right a tree in the middle of a forest, a tree with branches reaching out in every direction. Every year adding rings to its trunk, every year sending out new branches to hold leaves closer to the sunlight, closer to the other trees, inviting birds, insects and other creatures to come and find home, to make their nests, to find shelter, in order to nurture their own.

We used to think of forests as collections of individual trees, but we know now that forests are not quite like that. Instead every single tree has multiple connections through a hidden root system interwoven with a myriad of fungi creating a “wood wide web” of connections. Each tree learns to find its share of sunlight and holds back from interfering with its neighbours. Each mother tree protects her young, nurtures them, in ways we never knew before.

Every year there is more Life on Earth than there was the year before. Yes, we have species loss, and we lose habitats. But from the beginnings of the Earth until now, Life has spread to every nook and cranny, adapted to every possible environment, diversified, evolved and spread.

It’s something which evokes wonder and amazement in me. After all, we know that when it comes to elements, the elements we have ordered in the Periodic Table, that pretty much all the atoms of all the molecules which exist on this planet, have been here since the beginning. The Earth doesn’t make more gold, more silver, more lithium. All the elements we know were created in the great furnaces of distant stars, and all came together here to form this little planet. But Life isn’t like that. Life expands, doubles, multiplies.

From the time Life emerged this direction of travel hasn’t stopped.

Life, it seems, makes life out life.

I think that’s pretty amazing.

It strikes me that if I want to be in tune with the planet, if I want to live in harmony with Life, then I need to pay attention to this characteristic of reaching out, connecting, expanding…..I need to focus my energies on nourishing and nurturing, on protecting and providing, this living planet. What does that tell me about the choices I should be making, the directions I should be following, as 2021 rises above the horizon?

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