Before I start let me say a few words of caution. Firstly, I’m not in any way qualified to critic anyone on philosophical arguments. This means that if you’re undecided about this matter I would not recommend you seek enlightenment in this post – for the same reason as to why I wouldn’t recommend you read a lay person’s essay on galaxy evolution in order to decide between hierarchical and monolithic collapse theories . I’m also not here to defend Sam Harris‘ views in light of other people’s criticisms – you should read those posts for that, plus Sam Harris’ reply. I’m writing this because I saw myself profoundly changing my mind about something that is important to me, and publicly exposing an argument is still the best way to find flaws in it. A test, if you will. To put it in other words, I’m writing this for my own benefit, not anyone else’s.
I generally have little time to indulge too much in learning things which are not work related. I spend a lot of time not working (well, just enough!), but I spend only a small fraction of that time intellectually engaged in new ideas. This is not necessarily something I’m sad about – note that I’m excluding music, fiction, friends and general travel from this. That’s what takes up most of my free time – but I do find it harder and harder to sit down and actively learn. Again, note that I spend a lot of time reading about things and consuming information, but I’m generally happy to take other people’s opinions on most issues. Sure, I make an educated guess on who to trust (and that on itself takes some effort), but by large I don’t have the time to do the necessary research to (semi-)seriously challenge many of these opinions. It’s worth making the distinction between active and passive learning and, outside of work, my learning is decidedly dominated by the latter.
As most of you know, I’ve been smitten with Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System. This is hardly a surprise for those who know me (all of you I presume) – Brian Cox is a great communicator, unashamedly passionate about science and the physical world, the show is about some of my favourite things in life and the photography is spot on from top to bottom. So of course I like it. But more than liking it (loving it!), I feel the need to point out just how much credit Brian Cox deserves for this, and just how many miles away this show is from anything else on TV right now.
This became even more desperately apparent after watching Horizon’s take on Cosmology last night. I’ve learnt to lower my expectations on Horizon shows, but I hadn’t seen an episode for a while. Cosmology is one of my favourite things in life (also my job – aren’t I lucky?), a lot of people I respect were on this show, and the BBC does have a tendency for good photography so of course I was going to like it. Right? Wrong.
My natural inclination has always been to see beauty in scientific explanation. A good friend once had the sense of giving me Feynman’s Rainbow at a time when I was feeling particularly down about science, and it worked a treat. It is absolutely true for me – a rainbow is always more beautiful because I know what makes it look the way it does. There’s not only a sense of awe, but one of smugness too. We’ve come up with this rather neat framework to interpret the natural world, and it’s obscenely satisfying.
I got further reminded of this earlier today, as I watched Life on BBC4. Today it was about fish. There were flying fish, climbing fish and fish that skip along in the mud. There were Predator-like fish, and dancing see horses, and I sat there and stared in absolute wonder at the beautiful diversity that evolution naturally gives rise to.
Sometimes one just wants to get up and give the whole wide natural and physical world a tight and enormous hug for having somehow turned out the way it did, and springing up consciousness in the shape of an ever-so-slightly hangover girl at this point in space and time.
So here – thanks, world. Sometimes it really does feel like a privilege.
In a complete change of direction, this one goes out to a rant.
The financial situation for Astronomy in the UK has been dire for a couple of years. The whole story is complicated, and probably only fully understood by a small number of people (I can’t help thinking this is partly where the problem lies). The outcome is, however, rather clear.
The funding to Astronomy research, both to specific projects and grants that fund studentships and fellowships, has been slashed beyond the point of no return. Last week STFC announced the results of a prioritisation exercise and revealed 25-35% cuts in grants, plus the scrappage of many a good important and relevant projects. The result is a handicapped academic industry, which will now see their best either turning someplace else, or abandoning Astronomy altogether. Today, SFTC announced the cancellation of the 2010 round of Postdoctoral Fellowships – the most important fellowship scheme for young Astronomers in the UK – and quite frankly it seems with it to have stricken the final blow.
I created this place months ago now, and I created it out of what at the time felt like necessity. I didn’t come back for a long while though, and as I remembered today that this existed I felt that same need again. It’s odd, and it may not make sense to create a need just to then have the pleasure of satisfying it.. but. well.
It’s not entirely clear what I have to say, only that I need to say it. And you shouldn’t feel like I write for your benefit – you may be disappointed.