28 July 2012

The "2001 Code" - Clarke & Kubrick's last puzzle.

I simply cannot believe I never spotted this before. There is a code within 2001 - A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke were clever chaps - that much is not disputed. Their 1968 movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey" is, 44 years after its creation, still regarded as one of the best science fiction movies ever made. The story hits home at so many levels, yet it was only last night as I was humming tunes over in my head that I realised it contains a secret code. I'm still trying to work it out, but after you've listened to Strauss's "Blue Danube" above, think about this scene in the movie:

Notice anything?

Now play back the Blue Danube, and sing "Daisy Daisy" along over the top. Incredibly, it fits in perfect counterpoint.

Coincidence? I don't think so. What are Clarke and Kubrick trying to tell us?

OK, people, go to it. I have given you the first link in the chain. This is only removing one of the locks of the secret, but now you know that it's there, there are other elements within the movie that you can spot, join the dots, and remove more locks. What is the hidden message that Kubrick and Clarke were trying to convey?

First one to figure it out gets a ride to Jupiter!

22 July 2012

In praise of Creationists.

Creationists are great. Really. Following on from my previous post about the chirpy little Caleb Foundation pretending that the National Trust had "recognised the legitimacy of creationist views", I wondered whether I had been a little harsh. A major creationist fantasy (and they hope by continually making the claim that it will somehow become true) is that there is an ongoing debate within science about "Creation" vs "Evolution". This ties in with the declared "Wedge Strategy" which has been adopted by creationist organisations such as the Discovery Institute in the US, and while the Wedge has arguably had effects in US, it has been a conspicuous flop in the UK and Europe.

That may be changing - as noted by Adam Rutherford, Creationists have succeeded in getting approval to run Free Schools in the UK, and, although they declare they will not teach creationism "as a scientific theory" (this simply to satisfy the inspectors), they will convey a "creationist ethos". No-one, apart from otherwise sensible people like the @thechurchmouse blogger (worth a Twitter follow, seriously), is taken in by this. The goal of creationists is to get their "theory" into public discourse so that, even if it is treated with total derision in scientific circles, the public are somehow conned into thinking that it poses a credible alternative to the scientific view.

Yet... yet... are creationists really all that bad? Yes, they are pseudoscientific fantasists, and their arguments have been trashed over and over again. But could they actually be useful?

I was mulling this over a while back when it hit me that some of the most beautiful pieces of evidence that we have for evolution have been honed and clarified for presentation the general public by scientists precisely because of misguided creationist claims. For example, the fascinating story of human chromosome 2, while well known to scientists, was never really used as a means to teach the public about evolution - until the creationists started to warble about the impossibility of humans and other apes having a common ancestor. Truth be told, this simply reflected their ignorance of basic biology, but once the tatty old gauntlet was thrown down, Ken Miller picked it up, and in some of the best public engagement with science that I've seen in a long time whacked the creationists up and down the street with it, educating the public and making the arcana of molecular biology accessible to a general audience.

He did the same with the bacterial flagellum; others have done likewise with dinosaurs, birds, bacterial flagella, DNA sequences etc - now the general public are (arguably) much better informed on many of these issues than they would be if the creationists hadn't been around.

So next time you see Ken Ham or Billy Dembski bleating on about Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, raise a glass to them for triggering some of the best scientific popularisation that we've seen recently, from real scientists, confirming our common ancestry with other life forms, the age of the universe, the mechanism of formation of the Giant's Causeway and Grand Canyon, etc.

It has been said that God needs the Devil to make him look good; I don't believe in either of those blokes, but there's no doubt that when presented with the tawdry attempt at a simulacrum of science from the creationists, many people see the the Real Thing to be even more wonderful and awesome than perhaps they ordinarily would.

So let's continue to ridicule creationism and poke fun at its proponents. I don't think this reduces us to their level - we don't have to debate them in formal arenas - instead, it shows that despite their protestations, evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology and science in general are so much more nourishing than their misinterpretations of ancient mythology. Thanks, Ken!

04 July 2012

National Trust succumbs to creationist lunacy?

The Giant's Causeway
Oh dear - it looks like I will have to investigate this. The UTV News are reporting that the new Visitor Centre at Northern Ireland's top tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site is giving credence to the ridiculous and antiscientific creationist group, the Caleb Foundation. As everyone knows, the Giant's Causeway is a wonder of the natural world - a landscape of mainly hexagonal basalt columns, formed as an enormous lake of lava cooled about 60 million years ago.

Wallace Thompson is a chirpy wee puppy from this Caleb Foundation outfit, who are basically a Christianist pressure group set up to promote an ugly right-wing version of extreme Calvinism in a society that is actively trying to move on from the sectarianism of its past. He's delighted that the National Trust have included creationist material in the interpretative centre, despite the fact that the Causeway is not mentioned in the Bible at all. Wallace and other creationists feel that the Universe (that's your home, folks) was created about 6000 years ago, because they adopt an astonishingly naive view of Hebrew folklore, and reject the findings of biblical scholars, geologists and biologists alike. On the day when science unveiled the Higgs boson, boyos like Wallace are attempting to drag us into a world of fantasy and dragons.

[UPDATE 6/7/2012]
It has gradually become clear that the National Trust have been somewhat hoodwinked by the Caleb Foundation; it seems that all the NT were trying to do was to be "fair", while maintaining their position that the science behind the Causeway formation is firm. They were simply trying to acknowledge that creationists exist and have the views they do. On the face of it, this seems fair enough. However, what they failed to consider was how the creationists would use this little acknowledgement. It is born of naivety, not of malice.

The Caleb Foundation have used their inclusion to claim that the NT have recognised the "legitimacy" of their views, and therefore that there is a valid "debate" to be had; this allows them to claim that they are THE "umbrella group representing mainstream evangelical Christians", and by extension that Creationism is THE mainstream view of evangelical Christians, rather than the view of a crazy fringe.

The National Trust need to be very very clear on where they go next. They must immediately remove all references to creationist views from the material relating to the Causeway. If, upon review, it is felt that creationist views need a nod, this must be very clearly placed in the "Mythology, Folklore and Legend" section, along with the old stories of Finn MacCool, and alongside my personal favourite of the Giant Lava-secreting Bees. It is quite inappropriate for the National Trust to give the impression that this category of "explanation" is worthy of consideration as an "alternative" to a scientifically valid model.

I am very happy to discuss this with the National Trust if they'd like to get in contact (I'm @shanemuk on Twitter); I would suggest they engage the services of competent scientists who have expertise in dealing with creationists to assist in developing  their materials. Remember, organisations like Caleb are dishonest; they are pushing the Wedge Strategy, in order to foster the illusion that there is a genuine debate ongoing in the scientific field. Don't let them away with this. And, National Trust, we know you are honourable and have nothing but good intent - and that you have developed a world class visitor attraction. Let's work together to bring the wonder and glory of Northern Ireland's amazing geological heritage to  the world.

02 July 2012

What proper doctors have to learn from alternative medicine

Seek the inner centre of the soul within the harmony etc...
 Now settle down before you have a WTFeurysm – I have not gone all soft and altie. It’s still the same old Dr Shaney McKee, hard-nosed rationalist and scoffer-at-quacks, here. I’m not about to tell you that homeopathy or cranial osteopathy are anything other than mumbo-jumbo gobshitery. No. However, I think there are certain features of the “alternative medicine” interaction that real doctors need to have a long hard look at, and then look again at their own practice of medicine, and indeed the whole business of medicine altogether.

And by “business”, I am not talking about the generation of lucre. I’m not talking about soft-soaping gullible punters with sibilant whisperings that they want to hear. I’m not talking about lying to patients. Let’s cut to the quick. Not everything the alties say is complete cobblers. Much is, but some of it’s not. In our rush to apply intervention-looking things to every aspect of our patients’ lives, we’ve come perilously close to pushing the impression that people are only alive because we’re keeping them that way. Doctors hold the keys to life and death, and if we lose them down the back of the sofa, everyone is doomed.

The reality is different. If we lost many modern medicines, but kept things like good nutrition, clean water, sanitation, air quality etc, then probably most people would reach a reasonably ripe and happy old age. Heaven help me from the ministrations of too many doctors. Of course, many of these “non-medical” things owe their value-recognition to medics and their research, so I’m perhaps being a bit cavalier. Nevertheless, here is the deal: the human race survived and flourished for many millennia without modern medicine. The only “medicine” that was available was the purely empiric type; very few people were on regular prescribed treatments (and those that were generally died from them). There are a great many important exceptions to this, and I don’t want to get bogged down in the detail, but bear with me. To get to this stage, a hell of a lot of people had to die – it’s a process called natural selection – but the result is that the human body has evolved to be a reasonably resilient vehicle, even given a rather wide variety of environments.

Which brings me to the point where I think we could learn from the alties. In alternative medicine there is a great emphasis on allowing the body to “heal itself”. This is not surprising, given that most alternative medicines don’t contain anything that is actually likely to combat whatever disease process it’s being prescribed for. However, let’s be realistic. The human organism has many mechanisms that act together to maintain a certain equilibrium, and in most people, given reasonable supportive care, and barring nasty accidents, infections, cancers etc., this equilibrium will be sustained over a considerable period of time, say 70 years (the threescore years and ten of biblical allusion). For wetware, that’s really not bad at all. Many patients go to see an alternative medicine practitioner who tells them nice things they want to hear, does precisely nothing for them, then they feel a bit better, and hey presto, equilibrium restores itself (as evolution has effectively programmed it to do), and the patient thinks it was the alternative medicine that did the trick.

Of course there is something hugely unethical about this, as well as the huge fees some alternative practitioners charge, as well as their frequent discouragement of patients to attend real doctors when they have a real problem. But there is something in the interaction that proper doctors need to be aware of. I’m not saying that it is not the exact same interaction that many people would love to have with their doctors, and doctors would love to have with their patients, but the National Health Service is configured to make that seem the exception rather than the rule. Those exceptions are often extremely therapeutic, but it seems that they are insufficiently valued.

As doctors, we very frequently diagnose “disorders” that require “treatments” to put the body back on track, and then maintenance treatments to keep it on that track (the track generally being within a range of parameters that we’ve decided are normal for a 25 year-old male). And as our patients get older, their disorders of different systems require treatments that work via different mechanisms on various parts of our physiology, and it becomes less and less clear exactly what point in physiological Hilbert space the patients should (and even “should” is a loaded term) occupy. Take the octogenarians being admitted to British hospitals, and have a look at the multiplicity of medications we have them on – surely not all of these are contributing to their longevity or bon santé?

Perhaps – and I offer this somewhat tentatively – we need to take a step back. Instead of treating every damn thing, and putting people on maintenance medication to keep them “healthy” (as if the only thing standing between them and the grave is our drug cabinet), should we not adopt a general philosophy of supporting the body as it restores its own equilibrium? It sounds almost vomit-inducingly New-Age; I can hear the tinkle of crystals and wind-chimes already. And of course I am being spectacularly over-simplistic. I’m also attacking a gross straw man – most doctors are perfectly aware of this, and we do try to de-medicalise our patients where possible. Furthermore, for my rhetorical point, I am glossing over the very many harms alternative medicine can do. I am very much aware of this.

But in the face of endless marketing pressure from Big Pharma and haranguing from patients and pressure from government seeking adherence to proxy indicators of health, should we not be open with the public and with each other? We are searching for that Island of Calm where the patient is at ease within their own body, and where we rely a little bit more on the Harmony of Nature to do work its healing magic. After all, it has spent the last 4 billion years ruthlessly pruning failure out of the genepool in myriad rather messy ways, so we the survivors must have something going for us.