Category Archives: Soapbox

Eternal non-existence

I was on holiday last week in the Lake District.  The weather was beautiful all week and we spent every day walking the hills around the Duddon Valley before sampling a different real ale each evening in the Manor Arms in Broughton-in-Furness.  I also found time to read a small pile of books in which a recurring theme seemed to be death, perhaps because I was sensitised to it by the most substantial book on the pile: ‘All that remains: a life in death‘ by Sue Black, who is a leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology. In her brilliant memoir, she identifies three stages: dying, death and being dead.  She worries most about the first stage, dying, which in common with most people, she would like to skip through as quickly as possible.  However, she is intrigued by the threshold that separates dying from being dead and would like to experience it when the time comes; although that sounds like professional curiosity to me and I would be happy to skip through that too.  As she points out, those fears that we might have about the third stage, being dead, depend on our belief in what happens to us after death.  Not many people write books at the age 99, so I was curious to read a collection of essays by Diana Athill who was born in 1917 and published ‘Alive, Alive Oh!‘ in 2016.  The final essay is entitled ‘Dead right’ and is about her recollection of a contribution to a discussion on a television programme about death made by the photographer, Rankin.  The contributor said ‘that not existing for thousands and thousands of years before his birth had never worried him for a moment, so why should going back into non-existence at his death cause him dismay?’.

Hands-in-pockets

I often have the opportunity to take a ‘hands-in-pockets’ tour of a laboratory or facility during the course of visits to world-class research institutions.  ‘Hands-in-pockets’ means that you can look must but you must not touch anything or take photographs.  Some of these tours are more exciting than others; one very fast computer looks very much like another and one very expensive microscope looks very much like another.  However, a couple of weeks ago, we visited the library of Christ Church Oxford for five minutes and there, to my amazement and delight, lying almost casually on a table were first editions of two of the books that form the foundation of modern science.  Isaac Newton’s ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ published in 1687 and Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ published in 1859.  Now, we understood why the librarian had been reluctant to let us take a peek.  My hands stayed firmly in my pockets but the temptation to turn the page of the Origin of Species, which was open, or to open Newton’s great work was huge.  Instead, we walked slowly around the room, which besides us and a skeleton of a horse was empty, soaking up the atmosphere.  We left quietly, thanking the librarian at the bottom of the stairs for letting us take a peek.  I didn’t discover why they have a skeleton of horse in the library with their great collection of books – I didn’t feel I could ask the librarian as we left!

Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’?

I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019].  We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time.  Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive.  The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life.  Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains.  Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts.  Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’.  We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it.  Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’

Sources:

Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Czerski H, Storm in a teacup:the physics of everyday life, London: Penguin Random House, 2016.

Godfrey-Smith P, Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Planetary Emergency

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic].  This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change.  I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.

Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change.  For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:

  1. The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
  2. The warning earlier this month from the Meteorological Office in London that global warming could exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within five years.  In my lecture, I highlighted that a 2C rise would be equal to the temperature 3 million years ago when sea levels were 25 to 35m high; and, a 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people globally [according to Blockstein & Weigmann, 2010].
  3. The suspension of construction of the new nuclear power station on Anglesey by Hitachi, which leaves the UK Government’s energy strategy in disarray with only one of the six planned new power stations under construction.  This leaves the UK unable to switch from fossil-fuelled to electric vehicles and dependent on fossil fuel to meet current electricity demand.

I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region.  For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year.  These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.

Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet.  We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.