WHAT IF?

At school I embraced science and rejected religion.  The certainty of science was reassuring.  Science meant facts & knowledge.  It was immutable, incontrovertible and empirical.  Science measured things, tested things, showed how things worked.  That knowledge was power.  Nothing left to chance, nothing a matter of faith. Religion was passed down to us as a fact, true, but we were expected to accept it at face value.  Knowledge imparted through dictum, not experience.  Testing God was not on.

Science nowadays seems bossy and smug; a closed egalitarian system for the initiated in-crowd and it too involves interpretation.  Richard Dawkins, the spokesperson for the hatred for all things religious and love of the life scientific, had seemed so plausible – of course science should help us find the answers together with experimentation, tests, blind-tests and empirical measurements.

On the other hand, Religion did not seem to have much going for it.  Christianity could be held responsible for a lot of bad things, going back through its two thousand year history, the inquisition, nepotism, child abuse, heretical burnings.  But in that same time period it had also been the great religious orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans – that offered the opportunity for scientific experiments.  In those days there were simply no other organisations supporting brilliant minds, just the religious orders.  Cut off from society in lonely monastery cells, these religious were radically pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward.  The thirteen century Franciscan scientist, Roger Bacon was an intellectual pioneer of the study of nature through empirical methods.  In his day there was no such thing as a scientist, it was the monks’ faith that led them to explore the conditions for life, as a God-given mystery, to be understood.  The monasteries and convents were the power-house of creativity, education, medicine, hygiene, food, wine and scientific development.

To be religious now could mean thinking and speaking from the heart, nebulous thoughts, more fluid connections and ideas, free from the threat of damnation and hell fire.  Yes, and even humour is back in fashion in the Vatican, this new Pope can laugh.  What a laugh it would be if he were courageous enough to ordain a woman as a Cardinal, in one fell swoop he would steal a march on the Church of England and open up the church to the millions of women who shore up large and tiny parishes, all around the world.

Where are those power-houses now?  Is it Silicon Valley, or its counterparts in Russian, China, Korea?  The great Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft empires, where folk still dress in sandals and have long, flowing locks and beards; could they ever be capable of great art, music or writing?  Or is their vision concentrated, fixedly on their monitors and banks of screens, searching for answers along the virtual connections, circuitry and silicon chips of their sophisticated machines?  Is their future one of co-evolution, of human/machine coupling?

Life, emotions and relationships cannot conform to an algorithm, it is chaotic.  But if chaos theory tells us anything, it is that when Chaos is magnified enough times, it becomes order; maybe we just haven’t the ability to see the whole picture yet.  According to the big bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state.  After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.  The big bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe, rather it describes and explains the general evolution of the Universe going forward from that point.  Why had the conditions that went to make that explosion, existed in the first place?  The potential for the beginning.  Where did that potential come from?

Why are we designed the way we are?  The human genome project illustrates just how marvellous we are, but why are we that way?  To find God maybe we need to be even bigger than the memory of a strand of DNA, after all DNA has not been given to us by scientists, scientists have just revealed DNA to us, it comes from….. who knows where?  Our brains make connections, our blood flow can be observed, using MRI scans, moving around both sides of our hippocampus – our brain waves are a brain wave, but our inventions only expose the beauty of what we always had, but couldn’t see?  Seeing is believing, but the ultimate answers are still a mystery.

The beautiful, brilliant mystery that scientists are beginning to reveal, still does not supply the answer as to why the original pieces, the building blocks that make us who we are, were there in the first place?  Potential us, so dependant on chance encounters and conditions allowing for millions of different outcomes.

There are things that can’t be explained or matched up and ticked off.  Maturity, life experiences, does it endow us with a newfound tolerance for uncertainty?  No answers?  Mystery?  Daring to say there are some things we just don’t understand? Faith?  Have we reached a place where we can accept that open-ended, unsatisfactory realisation?

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A KICK START FOR SCIENTISTS

This week Nesta and the government-funded Technology Strategy Board are offering £10 million for a solution to the biggest scientific problem of our time.

The competition idea is based on the 1714 Longitude Prize, which was won by John Harrison. His clocks enabled sailors to pinpoint their position at sea for the first time.

In an updated version, the public will be asked to choose a new challenge.  The categories, from which the problem will be chosen, were announced on Monday 17th May 2014. These themes have been selected by a Longitude Committee and are:

FLIGHT – How can we fly without damaging the environment?

FOOD- How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?

ANTIBIOTICS – How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics

PARALYSIS – How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?

WATER – How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?

DEMENTIA – How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?

Comparing the modern prize to its predecessor, Prof Sir Martin Rees, chair of the Longitude Committee and English Astronomer Royal, observed that there is no manifest number one problem as there was in the 18th Century. Rather there are many broad societal problems demanding fresh thinking.

Each category will be examined in a BBC Horizon programme to be broadcast on BBC 2 at 21.00 tomorrow.  After that a public vote will be opened, with the chosen theme to be announced on 25 June.

My own favourite and the one I hope they choose, at the moment, is the search to provide freedom of movement to people with paralysis. This case will be presented on Thursday by A&E doctor Saleyha Ahsan, who will demonstrate the potential for her challenge with the help of Sophie Morgan, who has a spinal cord injury.  Using a robotic exoskeleton called Rex, Ms Morgan is able to stand up on stage.

Ms Morgan, who has been using Rex for one month, will tell the audience: “Having been sat down all the time, it is literally and metaphorically a perspective shifter… I’ve been psychologically affected by talking to people at eye level and there are health benefits. Already, I’m sleeping better, feeling better, my body is getting better and the pain is gone.”

Whichever category is chosen the prize will go some way to harness a spirit of ingenuity, creativity and positivity.  Great innovators like Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and Alan Turing led the field in technology only to be replaced with other pioneers in other countries who were supported, encouraged and more importantly funded by visionary Governments and Businesses.  This could be a chance to channel more brain power into innovation, jump-start new technologies and enthuse young people.

It will be exciting to find some modern-day John Harrison somewhere out there who will be inspired to change our world fundamentally and who may not even know they are a scientist.  I look forward to the programme tomorrow and to finding out more about each category, and I may have to change my mind, however I wish everyone good luck.

Harrison's Chronometer