Love Letter to Science, from a Romantic Aesthete

Particles

It is with some interest that I am following the ‘discovery’, or perhaps, ‘confirmation of’ the existence of the Higgs boson particle. And although it is not with the in depth knowledge of someone who can credibly hold forth on the minutiae of what the actual implications of this are for The Standard Model, I can still take pleasure in this advancement of human knowledge. It brings up so many themes and topics, too numerous to discuss here, but perhaps the most important is that the scientific method has once again won through with its humble, painstaking approach to problem-solving. Which is something valuable in a world of ideological and political grandstanding. It has the courage to stand humbly before the unknown, and if proven wrong, to admit to it and begin again; all along knowing (without 100% certainty of course) that the journey of discovery does not end with one erroneous turn.

This, in contrast, to the many divisive figures today, in the media and the public sphere, who resemble small children, fingers defiantly stuck in their ears, yelling nonsensically. To make the analogy more accurate, we would have to multiply the number of children (at a conservative estimate) by about ten thousand, all yelling at once, in a crowd.

So, when the intellectual arrogance and pessimism of the media chorus becomes too much, the place to go to is the serenely scientific Carl Sagan, who perhaps married art and science more successfully than any other public figure. In the series Cosmos (1980), his precise, poetic rendering of the Universe, allowed noobs like me to entertain the absurd notion that we understood exactly what he was talking about.

Left: Carl Sagan, featuring Stephen Hawking – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ (Symphony of Science) 

 

Indeed, he was a champion of wanting to know, resisting the comforts of complacency. And that is not something only science can lay claim to. I’ve never understood the often aloof relations between art and science; because if we were ever to reach Mars, in that first expedition, along with the scientists, we would have to send philosophers and artists and poets too. Because, when combined correctly, there is no coupling more capable of achieving the sublime.

Love and Affection

For those of you who have been following Athena and Wry Republic for some time, you will remember that I wrote last year about my brother’s time in the ICU ward after undergoing brain surgery. It was an instructive period that taught me a great deal about fragility and kindness.

This last week, my brother found himself in that place again. It’s been a tough few years for him, he’s recovering well after this latest bout of surgery. I hope it will be the last time he will have to endure it and will finally be able to move on with his life, unblighted by malady.

These past seven days have taken on a strange routine, ordered by the hospital’s visiting hours and the duration of the journey there and back.

All other duties and obligations faded in importance next to the primacy of this daily task, which my family and I completed happily everyday.

For anyone who has spent a prolonged period of time in a hospital will know that even in the grim circumstances, a camaraderie develops between the staff, visitors and patients. A tacit acknowledgement that we are all in this together.

The nursing staff were saintlike when stress and worry prevented us from being as friendly and forthcoming as we normally would be. They were patient and understanding beyond the call of duty, leading my brother to remark on how under appreciated they are.

Love and affection, the only two things that make this brief time suspended in space, orbiting the inferno, truly worth it.

By The Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept

9/11: An event that ripped a hole in the fabric of our history. The time before it, seems idyllic.

Whilst pondering the historical significance of 9/11, we came across this rather beautiful a capella version of Babylon by the American singing trio, Mountain Man.

While some may see the choice of song here as a political point (‘Zion’ may seem a loaded term after all), it seems appropriate, now, more than ever, owing to its evocation of past and present, as we look back on a decade of war and take a moment to consider our place in history. So we ask you not to consider Zion in such narrow terms, but to apply it more broadly. As representative of a bright, shining past that will forever elude us. Zion is a lost innocence. This generation’s at least.

The twenty-first century has, for the most part, been defined by contradictions between what we thought about our human future and what we have found awaiting us. After a century of seemingly relentless war and the threat of nuclear annihilation, we seemed poised for a greater future, in the 1990s. The Soviet Union fell and thus appeared to bring an end to the age of great power competition; whereupon Francis Fukuyama declared the ’End of History’. New technology was causing the world to shrink and the march of globalisation swept across the world.

Then, at the dawn of the new human century, history came crashing down on us again, out of a clear September sky. It seems both tragic and fitting that we faced an enemy that wished to achieve a twisted parody of what some had thought we had achieved already: an end to history, a return to an imagined perfect epoch.

What has been achieved since then? Can the human race claim to be any more unified? The old Western order strains to hold itself together, fractured by economic chaos and endless war. The cradle of civilisation is racked by revolution and counter-revolution and our hatreds and misunderstandings seem more fervent than ever. We gaze, fearful but resigned, into the abyss.

The events of the last decade embody the state of timeless historical perpetuity to which Robin Jones refers in his piece about that blackest of Septembers. What is to become of us? The answers may surprise us. Our idea of history is more realistic now and more conducive to building a future from the fragments of our present. Our civilisation has not fallen; we have limped on in spite of our frailties. New discoveries have in many ways defined the 2010s, our artists and dreamers continue to cultivate great beauty and the human capacity for great love and empathy remains undiminished.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong, but so were the men who sought a return to the past. History cannot be brought to an end nor can it be revived. The goals of those men were impossible and thus their failure inevitable. There is no deterministic force called ‘history’ and the future is an untold story of which we are the narrators. Most of all there is no past, only the memory of what is lost.

9/11: The long fading memory of History

(Originally published September 11, 2012)

It is a cliché but also a truism that everybody remembers where they were when it happened, or at least when they found out about it. Eleven years on, it is worth reflecting on this memory. I refer not to the need to pay tribute to the dead (also a worthy and, in my opinion, necessary activity) but to notice how an event that, for so many years, has seemed current has now passed into history. This does not diminish it as a climatic and game-changing event for the entire civilised (and uncivilised) world.

I recall that the day after the event, by strange and auspicious coincidence, I was to have my first class of ‘American History’ for my high school History course. We walked in and sat in silence, the air still abuzz with a surreal electricity from the events of the day before. Our teacher walked  around the classroom with a handful of photocopies of the infamous image of the burning towers now seared on the brain of almost every human being, gave us each a copy, walked to the front of the class and simply said: “This is history”.

At the time it didn’t feel like history. I had studied history and there was something intangible about it, distant and arcane. This was the very essence of ‘NOW’, the rubble still smouldered, mobile phones still screeched desperately from under the rubble, fanatics ululated joyously around burning American flags and everywhere ordinary citizens fearfully contemplated ‘what’s next?’. We were at the threshold of a savage new millennium.

The foul architect of that atrocity lies dead at the bottom of the ocean, but the consequences of that day still ripple through global society and politics. Hatred towards Western secular society still ferments among fundamentalists, and the need to stand up to that hatred is still manipulated for political gain in the West. Britain and America are still dug into a seemingly intractable conflict in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East remains unstable. But the ‘now’ has extended into a kind of historical perpetuity. We are paying a price to history, a debt we did not ask for but incurred nonetheless.

Anxiety

One of the things I have had to accept about myself as I have grown older is that I am a worrier. I have never been and probably never will be one of those people who take a lazily stoic attitude to life, confronting every problem with a shrug of the shoulders and another swig of beer.

But accepting this aspect of my personality has the benefit of giving me some insight into what it is to worry. To worry is to project oneself forward and imagine the potential negative outcomes of a situation, fixating on hypothetical outcomes, rather than focusing on the situation as it is now. One of the best ways to cope with this tendency is to develop the ability to laugh at oneself. This provides a natural check against overly obsessive thinking and facilitates the self-awareness to know when your thinking is getting just plain silly, and then to laugh at it rather than perpetuating obsessive thinking.

What can also help is to reflect on what fear is. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reflection that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” has been so criminally over-quoted that for a long time I didn’t give it much thought. But when you unpack it, you can start to appreciate its wisdom. Think of the last time you had an intimidating event approaching: a high pressure job interview, an exam, a medical procedure or anything of that nature. One thing to notice is that often the period of fear preceding the event is much more unpleasant than the event itself. “Fear itself” does not have any actual content independent of the event that it is anticipating – it is essentially the creation of additional unnecessary unpleasantness.

It is in this way that fear becomes crippling and self-perpetuating. A number of years ago I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Once you experience your first panic attack, it is not necessarily what triggered the first attack that you dread but the sensation of panic. Thereafter, it is the anticipation of having another panic attack which becomes the trigger. Having spoken to others who have experienced the same or similar problems, I now know that this is a very common phenomenon.

Fear, as an emotion, is often nothing more than a conduit for more fear. It is virulent. It multiplies and divides, eventually overwhelming your psyche if it is allowed to. Unfortunately, fear has survival value in evolutionary terms and is thus ineradicable in us.

But it can be conquered. The opposite of fear is acceptance, even to the extent of accepting that you are afraid and that it’s okay to be.

If you feel afraid, it is worth asking yourself, what are you really afraid of?