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* A great star just burnt out *

Stephen Hawking

8th January 1942 – 14th March 2018





I will always associate Stephen Hawking with the truly wonderful opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, which (like the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics) celebrated many things about the human spirit (sadly, things that the current leadership of the USA obviously cares nothing about).

He opened the Paralympics ceremony (click either image above for my full coverage) with this:

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world: why it is as it is, and why it exists at all.

“But, even if we do find a complete theory of everything, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations, and makes a Universe for him to describe?”


Stephen's indomitable spirit and his supreme intellect, and the wonderful people who supported him, have been rightly celebrated many times (see links at the bottom of this post).

I particularly enjoyed the 55-minute PBS production Stephen Hawking: A Personal Journey, which you can watch by clicking the image below, and the biographical movie The Theory of Everything featuring an astonishing performance by Eddie Redmayne.



In the screenshot above, Stephen is looking at a newspaper page carrying an advert from Channel 4's Meet the Superhumans campaign, which trailed the London Paralympics that were to change the image of disability forever (except in the USA, whose networks carried almost no coverage).

The PBS programme shows Stephen's considerable humour (I particularly liked his exchanges with Jim Carrey), and has many deep insights into his personal life.

The programme ends with Stephen's appearance at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and with his words there:

“We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spiri. So let us together celebrate excellence, friendship and respect. Good luck to you all.”

Stephen Hawking pushed back the frontiers of our knowlege about the Universe we live (upsetting more than a few followers of anti-science religions along the way), and towards the end of his life laid the foundations for explorations of the possible existence of the Multiverse (no, he didn't prove that the Multiverse exists, although it might).

His ashes are to be interred near the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey, a very rare honour. But the way I look at it, great as those groundbreaking scientists were, they should be honored by Stephen's company.


[Stephen Hawking Quotes]
[A Brief History of Time]
[Tributes to Stephen Hawking]

From my web site...

[London 2012: The beautiful games]
[Science vs. Religion]


The New Crusades

Wars fuelled by religion are no new thing. But there are at least two crusades taking place today against (some forms of) religion itself - campaigns fought with words and ideas rather than with swords, bombs or bullets.

And some of them are very entertaining.

The Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in Philip Pullman's long-awaited prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The original trilogy, and now its prequel, are gripping stories for younger and older readers alike. But they are also Pullman's crusade against forms of religion that I would describe as "a waste of life" - denying pleasure in this one life that we have in the expectation of a glorious (or eternally damned) life to come.

The two images and quotes below come from this really excellent Guardian review.

“Philip Pullman … a tension between deep attraction to magic and fierce atheistic pragmatism resolves itself into a commitment to art. Photograph: Michael Leckie”


“Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in The Golden Compass, the 2007 film adaptation of Northern Lights. Photograph: Allstar/New Line Cinema”

From the Guardian review (click any of the images to read it):

Bible Belt America didn't know much about the original trilogy until the movie came out, and was then horrified. The books were withdrawn from libraries and schools because "they are teaching atheism to our kids", and no movies of the remaining books in the trilogy were made.

Such censorship is the opposite of education, closing minds instead of opening them - something that I find wholly destructive and evil.

Which brings us to the second crusade, this one being waged against science-denying forms of religion, particularly prevalent in the USA:
America still living in the Dark Ages - rejection of science by religion

In today's Dark Ages, many Conservative Evangelical Christians support a morally-degenerate President and a morally-degenerate political culture that are as far from real Christian values as you can get. It seems that they only had to be told that Hillary Clinton is a satanic figure who will deny your religious freedoms (an Internet-multiplied lie), and be fed and feed each other with distorted and falsified versions of her views on abortion, for them to bring about and support something that is truly evil.

The really frightening thing about the situation in the USA (and increasingly on the other side of Atlantic) is that truth in politics matters less and less - a situation for which science-denying religion is, of course, only partly responsible. To some extent politics has always been "a dirty business", but this is different. Donald Trump rose to power by telling literally thousands of flat-out, easily-disproved lies, spread by supporters on the Internet, and has gone on doing so since becoming President (at an average rate of 5.5 lies per day, see the CNN analysis here).

It is no accident that Trump constantly vilifies the free Press (violating the 1st Amendment) and is actively damaging (among other things) the country's Environmental Protection Agency, Intelligence Services and Science (follow these links for a current damage report). What all of these have in common is that they deal in reality, something to which Trump and his supporters are seriously allergic.

It is also no accident that the crusade against science-denying religions has become a wider crusade against the “post-truth culture” of today, which thrives on easy labels, fake news and the power of the Internet to spread misinformation, and which enemies of democracy (and I unhesitatingly include Trump, Steve Bannon and Putin among them) have clearly been exploiting.

It includes the world-wide protests that had a hashtag #StandUpForScience.

It includes (in their gentle and subtle support for reason and humanism) the highly entertaining books of Terry Pratchett.

It includes, in a small way, what you are reading now, and published letters like this one:

(Climate change denial has other causes, including corporate interests in fossil fuels. Also, the letter was actually written in response to a similar article in the same issue called THE TRUTH ON LIES.)

So... is there a bright side in all this? Are these crusades having any effect?

It seems true (whether you view it as good news or not) that religion is slowly declining in the USA. Part (but by no means all) of this is due to a backlash against what many Americans see as moral corruption in organized religion, examples being the political support for Trump and the pastor who refused to open his megachurch to victims of Hurricane Harvey. The effect of this last single incident in shifting the American religious landscape is probably very easy to underestimate.

In response the crusade against the “post-truth culture” of today, Google, Twitter and Facebook are finally taking action against fake news (the very latest links on that subject, relative to when you read this, will be found here).

Finally, as I asked in my previous article on a similar subject, how do we get out of this dark place?

Not easily, that's for sure - but FWIW here's my 2¢:

Moving forward, some suggestions for improving life after Trump


From this blog:

[PLEASE wake up, America. You are being “gaslighted”.]
[GPS: The Miracle in Your Smartphone]
[Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics]
[“The Trump Diaries” (the Trump thread in this blog)]

From my web site:

[Thoughts on Science and Religion - and why this stuff matters]

From others:

[White Evangelicals Are Sticking With Their “Prince of Lies” (Newsweek)]
[Moving forward: the Obama Foundation ]


Mission Galapagos

Liz Bonnin in the superb BBC 3-part series Galapagos, a beautiful and informative documentary

Mission Galapagos was a high-tech science expedition to examine what the Galapagos Islands can tell us about evolution and the effect of climate change on wildlife.

The islands, located in the Pacific about 1000km west of Ecuador, are not a place for Creationists to think about (doing so would fry their brains).

One of many things we learn is how the islands were formed (and are still being formed), how long this has taken, and why they are so different from each other.

It turns out that the islands sit on the Nazca tectonic plate that acts like a conveyor belt, trundling very slowly eastwards (at around 58km per million years), passing over a magma hot-spot below. This hot-spot constantly generates new volcanos as the plate moves eastwards, which rise above sea level to become new islands. Eventually the volcanic islands leave the hot-spot and cool so that they develop lush vegetation, and finally disappear underwater again (as the plate slides downward beneath the South America Plate) to become submerged mountains.


The Mission Galapagos science team visit one of the most awesome and dangerous dive spots in the world...


...Darwin's Arch, where scuba divers must descend quickly through strong currents to the relative safety of the rocky sea bed (click either image above for photo source)...


...and where hammerhead sharks (globally endangered) congregate in vast numbers for a mating ritual
(photo by Simon J Pierce, click image for photo source)


Among many other animals investigated was the astonishing marine iguana, living above and below water,
which has evolved so that the same animal can shorten its length in hard times
(Click the image for photo source and to read more about the expedition.)

There was much to enjoy in this documentary, whether above ground, underground or underwater. Some people, sadly, may never get to see it. American networks were very reluctant to show the final episode of Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet, because it showed "controversial" evidence of the effect of climate change at the Poles. What Bible Belt America and Trump America will make of Mission Galapagos, should they get to see it, is anyone's guess.

It is not only in America that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is under threat. There have recently been massive worldwide “Marches for Science”, protesting against “a global political assault on facts”. Anyone who doubts the significance of this is invited to peruse my Trump Diaries.

Liz Bonnin is one of my personal heroes in what is genuinely a fight against the forces of darkness. Her scientific background (she is a biochemist and Wild Animal Biologist, among other things) and her personality make her a very effective ambassador for STEM.

In the UK, as elsewhere, it was realized some time ago that disrespect for STEM would cost the country dear if not reversed. One of the first shots in achieving that was the successful BBC Series Bang Goes The Theory, where I first saw Liz in action.

Now young people (and especially girls) are being actively encouraged to take an interest in STEM.

Sadly, the USA is cursed with an anti-science (and anti-reality) President who seems bent on undermining the US's science and technology base, with untold consequences - but that's another story.


If you like this...

[My environment and technology page]


Seriously...
If we aren't happy with this:
How the president speaks to his nation tweets twitter
...then we need to fix this:
Trump's presidency the end result of flawed democracy
...and think hard about this:
Trumpness rare personality type disrespect for evidence-based truth anti-science religions alt-reality
...and (somehow) advance from this:
The Dark Ages in the USA and how they have led to Trump
...perhaps like this:
Moving forward, some suggestions for improving life after Trump


If you like this...

[PLEASE wake up, America. You are being “gaslighted”.]
[GPS: The Miracle in Your Smartphone]
[Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics]
[“The Trump Diaries” (the Trump thread in this blog)]
[Moving forward: the Obama Foundation ]

From my web site:

[Why Science and Religion Need Not be Enemies ]


The Shadow in the West

"Daybreak at Rain Forest Lagoon" © by Christoph Wiemann


Please share this, if you will (but click the date/time FIRST in order to get a permalink - thanks!)

If you like this, you might also like...

[A friendly letter to America]

and from my web site:

[The Shadow in the West - the full version]
[My thoughts on science and religion, and why this stuff matters]



In this particularly beautiful video, Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist, explains what he considers to be the most astounding fact about our universe: that we are all literally made of “star stuff”.

Of course, we are all more than the sum of our parts!

After watching the video I reflected sadly that some religions close their eyes to the true wonders of creation - which reminded me of this (apparently often misunderstood) quote:

If (like me) you wondered what Einstein really meant by this, go here or click the quotation for a good discussion article, or go here for an in-depth Wikipedia article on Einstein's religious views.


If you like this...

[The science of the movie Interstellar [1]]
[The science of the movie Interstellar [2]]

... and FWIW:

[My own thoughts on the conflicts or otherwise between science and religion (from my web site)]
[Magical Loops: wonderful complexity from repeating simple rules many times (from my web site)]


Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics

The image above is mine - feel free to share...

It turns out that all the technology that is based on transistors - computers, mobile phones, the Internet, you name it - depends on the strange reality of quantum physics, as does almost everything that we see (and don't see) around us.

I recently read, or rather am having the great pleasure of working through in several passes, most of The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen, a book written by Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. (I say “most of” because the the chapters in the book lead you up to a real worked example in the Appendix, a seriously high mountain which I have yet to attempt!)

In 1927 J.B.S. Haldane famously wrote: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The Universe is truly a queer and wonderful place, and this book clearly explains some of its most queer and wonderful mechanisms. The method of explanation, using familiar clock faces and waves, doesn't eliminate the occasionally frightening mathematics, but conveys brilliantly what is really going on.

(Anyone thinking "I can't do maths", by the way, has never had teachers like these (or Salman Khan, see bottom of this post). I wish they had taught me when I first attempted to learn this stuff!)

Equally fascinating is the authors' explanation of how science reached its current understanding of the theory that predicts so accurately how the Universe behaves, from the chemistry of life (and table salt) to why (since atoms are mostly empty space) we don't fall through the floor, to the life-cycle of stars.

Unusually in a science book, the authors are not afraid to explain the limitations of science, either: scientific knowledge isn't perfect and fixed, but always growing, and here is a great description of how science helps knowledge to grow.

You can read a really good review of the book here. Click the images for more about the authors.

I find it sad that in today's world some religions still cannot accept science, but must imagine an alternative reality (with a bogus science that doesn't constantly test itself critically against evidence, as real science does) that doesn't conflict with their beliefs.

It is also ironic, as well as sad, that people following these religions promote their messages (and do much else) using technology that depends on the science that they don't believe in.

Creationists (or whatever they call themselves) have a perfect right to believe in whatever they want. However I find it horrifying to read about persistent attempts to have Creationism taught in classrooms, and teachers being intimidated for teaching real science.

Disrespect for science is no new thing, and not confined to reality-denying religions. The “mad scientist”, for example, has always been a popular feature of movies and TV shows (even in The Muppets, one of my all-time favourites!). Scientists have not always performed well, and have not always found it easy to communicate clearly with the non-scientific public (a hard but essential job when issues like climate change and health are at stake).

A while back, the UK woke up to the fact that its future prosperity depended on reversing this trend, and many popular science programmes (among other things) have resulted - from the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory to some extraordinarily illuminating programmes featuring Brian Cox.

J.B.S. Haldane, should he be observing from somewhere what is happening in physics today, might not change his suspicion (the inner workings of gravity, for instance, still have much to reveal to science) - but I am sure that he would be “watching developments with great interest”.


If you like this...

[More thoughts on Science and Religion]
[Is our weather getting worse? (major Channel 4 documentary)]
[Some wonders from NASA]
[Some thoughts on Science and Politics]
[One of the greatest FREE learning and teaching resources on the Internet: The Khan Academy]


(Original post: September 25th, 2010)

This comes from a new post on my other blog.

Click the image for some of my thoughts on humanism, and why I think that this stuff really matters.