Tag Archive: New Scientist


… but not necessarily on it!

I have mixed feelings about the sea – I have nothing against it personally. However, this is the person who gets seasick on the Isle of Wight ferry (mind you, I also felt a bit nauseous on a boating lake in East London but I think that had more to do with the state of my rowing as there were no wind and waves to blame.) On the other hand there are some positive experiences, to name but a few: paddling in shallow water at the seaside, exploring rock pools, simply sitting gazing out towards the windswept horizon and boat trips to visit wildlife. There are some magnificent creatures in the sea though many of them are notoriously shy and to see such as dolphins and whales is a rare treat. And where would our fish and chips be without the sea?
Come to think about it, where would our foreign cars, bananas, mobile phones and other gadgets be without someone to cross the sea to import them? Let’s spare a thought for all those who work on, in or under the sea to help our nation’s trade, to provide us with food, to take us on holidays and to keep us safe.
Apparently, it is said that we know more about the surface of the Moon than we know about what is under the oceans’ waves. (If you do the arithmetic, I think you will find that that is in part because there is more ocean than there is surface of the Moon – but you get the general point). There is so much we do not know about the sea. There are myths and legends aplenty – we have very little idea what is to be found in the deeps. For example, over centuries there have been stories about a giant squid which were thought to be entirely myth – until eventually someone managed to bring one to the surface for all to see. (More on giant squid at New Scientist). God knows about the seas’ hidden depths and is fully aware of the risks and benefits that flow from working on the sea.

For some churches 12th July is “Sea Sunday” when the prayer-focus is on those who live and work on (or under) the sea. It is also a chance to learn about the “Mission to Seafarers“. We do well to acknowledge how much we depend on the resources of the sea and on the work of people to harvest them.

When we think of the sea – whether on a seaside holiday or at other times – let’s remember that it is not just so much water full of creatures to fish; it is also a place of mystery, beauty and danger. Thank God for the sea.

There is the ocean, large and wide, where countless creatures live, large and small alike. The ships sail on it, and in it plays Leviathan, that sea monster which you made. (Psalm 104 verses 25 to 26)
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Take an idea like “nothing” and then invite a variety of scientists, mathematicians and other experts to write about it in their field.This is the premise behind a collection of essays called “Nothing” published by Profile Books and edited by Jeremy Webb.

Thus we have the history and science of the temperature 0K – absolute zero – and what happens to materials such as Helium when cooled to very close to zero degrees. You learn that there are different  kinds of vacuum and that Quantum Physics suggests that a vacuum might not be as ’empty’ as we imagine.

Then there is the history of ‘zero’ both as a number which does funny things (a bit like infinity) as well as being a place marker so that we do not mix up 11, 101, 110 and 1001 etc for instance. We also find out about placebos and their evil twins nocebos. Other topics include the noble gases which, at first glance, do nothing.

This is the sort of book you might dip into or have at your bedside. That is not to say that the reading is especially light but that the style is informal and you don’t have to understand any technical details.

I like this book enough to read it over my cereal but it is not particularly entertaining if you do not have at least some idea what they are talking about. Although I found it readable, I prefer the New Scientist books derived from their ‘Last Word’ feature in the magazine.

Overall three stars or 6 out of ten.

Money, money, money

The title of this post intrigued me “Financial lessons from Yoga, Homer Simpson…” and it is a fairly quick read. I’m not necessarily endorsing everything it says but I liked the idea that simple pleasures in life can be just as fulfilling (and fun) as other more expensive ones. The blog also reminds the reader of other obvious but often ignored truths; such as the fact that we are most likely to succeed at what we are good at and have a passion for – the hard part may be in finding that calling we were made for.

Meanwhile, the New Scientist reported the other day (“Virtual money gets real” 04 June 2011) that there is a new virtual currency, the bitcoin, that is becoming popular with some. In an age where money is increasingly so much digital information and decreasingly cash in our pocket, this is a currency which is entirely on-line (there are others linked to particular games or networks like Facebook). Like any other currency, its strength depends very much on the confidence of the people who use it. National currencies used to be mostly backed by precious metals such as gold, or a basket of other currencies. These days they are backed largely by the tax-raising powers of the relevant government. For the time being most of us are likely to have more confidence in the government’s ability to raise tax than in a currency which is little more than an idea.

That set me wondering what the future of money might look like as trade and taxes become more globilised, as commodities become less predictable as a means of backing a currency and if electronic currency does not inspire us with confidence. One possibility might be to make a currency out of a carbon credit. Much of what we buy will have involved the emission of CO2 and an individual annual allocation is one way of managing the CO2 we put into the atmosphere. That would limit the amount of goods and services that could be produced and give value to the “Carbon Credit”. However, this currency would not necessarily take directly into account the rarity or abundance of raw materials or the amount of human skill involved. It would push the market to those things which are more CO2 efficient.

Perhaps another currency might be energy. It could cover all forms of energy, not just electricity generation, and there would be more profit in the more efficient means of making things. It would also encourage consumers to favour the things that require less energy in their production and use. The downside to this one is that it might create an incentive to make more energy and produce more CO2. The advantage of both of these is that they could be universal although I think in practice both would be unworkable as a currency even if we end up with some kind of CO2 and energy rationing in future. As it is essential to all life, water could be considered. OK, so this would only work in a desert or on the moon, but we do need to come to terms with the fact that it is a finite, and therefore precious, resource – more precious I dare say than gold. I don’t know what the currency of the future will look like but I suspect that it will relate to the rationing of finite but essential resources.

Whatever currency we use, I guess that sooner or later there will be some who have rather more of it than others – no matter how egalitarian it starts out. The fact is, some people will save more than others and that will leave them with more than the person who has not. And some truths about money and wealth remain the same: you can’t take it with you (as both the apostle Paul and Job might have said). Money (whatever form it takes) may bring us power and influence but it can’t buy us happiness.  An authentic life (a life of godliness) lived contentedly may enrich us more than common currency – and in that respect Homer may well be rich after all.

So we are being asked to consider changing the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. Currently we have FPP (First Past the Post) which is a nice straight forward system. A number of candidates stand for election, the voters cast their vote for their preferred choice and the one with the most votes wins. Simple. If you have just a handful of people standing for election and lots of people voting this system quickly gives a clear result. For example, in a group with a hundred voters one candidate might get 55 votes, another 40 and the third just 3. The one with 55 votes has a clear victory. Where it starts to get complicated is where the voting is more evenly spread out across lots of seats. You could have a situation where every victor has, say, 40 of the votes and the other two 30 a piece. That would mean that one party could win 100% of the seats with 40% of the votes. That hasn’t exactly happened but with FPP you can have a party with most seats but not most votes (as did happen in the UK in 1974). It is not all that unusual for the number not voting for a winning candidate to be significantly greater than the number of electors who did – it just requires the opposing votes to be spread out between two or more others – that duly elected MP may even have a comfortable ‘majority’.

Each system has its drawbacks, FPP included; in fact an article in the New Scientist from last year the writer suggests that “Democracy is always unfair”.
I suppose it depends on whether you are happy with a minority party having all the power (and all political parties in this country are minority parties)…. I think I’d like the power shared around some as I’m not totally convinced by any of the parties’ leaders or policies.

It also depends whether you are voting somebody in  or trying to keep the “nasty party” out. Who the “nasty party” is will depend on your own preferences and prejudices, of course.

AV (the Alternative Vote system) is not PR (Proportional Representation) but a tweak on FPP. If the candidate with the most votes still has less than 50% then the people running the election look at the second preferences of the votes of all the people who voted for the person who had least votes. That person drops out of the race while all the other candidates may get some extra votes. If anyone now has 50% of the vote they are duly elected. If not, the process carries on until eventually one person reaches that 50% mark.  It is possible for a candidate to catch up or even over take the person who had most votes in the first round so some might be a bit miffed about that. Plus if you voted for the winning candidate in the first place and they win in the end your vote only gets counted once – but are you going to complain if they’ve won?

The overall effect on the outcome of any of these elections depends on how much tactical voting there has been and how much there will continue to be. Hopefully more people will feel able to give first preference to their preferred party/candidate.

My experience of STV (the Single Transferable Vote system) is not altogether happy. It is a lot harder to keep a particular party/candidate out through tactical voting – which is perhaps an improvement – but it seems that even with more than one representative to be elected in a given constituency the three never include any of my first preferences!

The fact remains that if you vote for a minority party who never get elected, how is your opinion going to be counted? Is democracy about fair elections or is it about every one having a voice that is heard? The crucial thing, I believe, is that however one is elected, you should seek to serve the whole community and not just the part that has happened to elect you.

The Christian principles involved here are that:

  1. every human being is a child of God,
  2. anyone in a position of authority is there by divine permission not divine right,
  3. leaders are there to serve the community and not be self-serving, and
  4. no one is perfect (every single human being is a sinner) and that includes our leaders as well as the electorate.

I shall probably vote for AV in May but somewhat reluctantly. Whatever system we have my lot never seem to get in.

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