Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too Clever By Half

I wonder if you watched the television documentary that I saw last month?  I wonder if you heard the scientific report on the radio that I listened to this week?
Let's bring these two programmes together and indulge in a little anxiety . . . anxiety alleviated by hope.

The scientific documentary was a celebration of modern achievement.  In the final sequence, the scientist led the reporter to a glass window in his laboratory on the other side of which was a small room.  Seated facing each other on the floor of this small room were three robots.  As we watched, one of the robots lifted up a placard bearing two numbers and nodded emphatically to indicate that the numbers were accurate.  He then held up another card with other numbers and shook his head to indicate that these ones were incorrect.

His two fellow robots sat watching intently.  To my amazement, it slowly became clear that the first of the robots was teaching communication skills to his companions.  He was showing them that a nod indicated agreement, that a shake of  the head conveyed the opposite.  The scientist who had 'taught' the robot these extraordinary skills, stood proudly beside the reporter and was clearly taking no part in the exercise.  It was the robot, and the robot alone, who was passing on  his knowledge to his companions.

Judging by the commentary, we, the viewers, should have been lost in wonder and admiration . . . I, on the contrary, was amazed and appalled.  In my eyes this was learning without perception, skills without sensitivity, cleverness without wisdom.  I found it terrifying.

I might have forgotten the disturbing incident had it not been for this week's scientific report.  It appears that an international team at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, a team comprising scientists, mathematicians and philosophers, has been considering an important question, namely:  'Are we on the verge of our own unexpected extinction'.  

If nothing else, it was an unexpected question!
It appears that the answers given by the team were not governed by considerations of climate change, population expansion, food and water shortage, or even global warfare.  Instead, and more surprisingly, they related solely to technological advancement.  According to one of the scientists, a real gap has appeared between the speed of technological advance and our understanding of its implications.
"We're at the level of infants in moral responsibility," he said, "but with the technological capabilities of adults.  Modern technology is like a dangerous weapon in the hands of a child."

Other members of the panel shared these views.  One was apprehensive as to the uncertain outcomes of biological experiments, another was concerned about the social fragility and lack of resilience in our technology-dependent society.'  They were unanimous in proposing a Group for the Study of Existential Risk to consider current threats.

Once again, I'm reminded of the scheming Sourcerer's Apprentice.  Without the timely intervention of a Sourcerer, are we, too, in danger of being swept away by our own cleverness?  Will we tamper with one gene too many?  Will our labour-saving robots decide that it's time to rid the planet of their cocksure creators and assume the mantle of control?
Cleverness without wisdom . . . curiosity without integrity . . . ambition without compassion . . . are we, indeed, on the verge of our own unexpected extinction?

The Institute in Oxford brought their questioning to a close with a memorable statement: "There is no plausible moral case," they declared, "not to take the situation seriously."

I read their conclusions with a sinking heart.
Mightn't a little humility be a good idea?  Let's be honest . . . we can't create life . . . we can't even explain what life is.

Just think about it, could you or I produce an ounce of honey without a bee?  Or grow an oak tree if we had no resource to acorns?  Without a seed, could we even create a simple blade of grass?  And what about those two vital necessities of life . . . air and water?

Oh yes, we are clever and ingenious and smart . . . but we are only playing at the edges of creation and everything could seriously backfire.

We said that we'd start with anxiety, but that this anxiety would be alleviated by hope.
So . . .  where's the hope?

First of all, don't let's forget an important factor that we constantly overlook . . . as a species, we are still evolving.  You've only to look at us, to listen to us, to realise that as a work in progress, we've still a long way to go.
Are we living in harmony with the rest of our world?  Hardly . . . !
Our hope lies in the fact that creation is still creating, echoes of the Big Bang are still vibrating through every cell of the universe.

Hope lies in the trust that cleverness will evolve into wisdom, that we will recognise our interdependence with the world around us, our unity with every other aspect of creation.
The hope that, as creatures, we will raise our energy frequency and marvel  . . .   love . . .  collaborate . . .  and cherish.

As I write this a rapidly swelling group of people is assembling in Parliament Square.
Why?  They are gathering to oppose the latest pesticides and to register their support for the honey bee.
Isn't that ground for hope?

I hope so!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Blowing bubbles

Forgive me if you saw the television programme . . . forgive me if you already know all there is to know about bubbles . . . but, if you didn't and you don't, may I have the pleasure of sharing some fascinating facts?

Shakespeare, it seems, got it seriously wrong.  There's no way in which bubbles could possibly be termed 'toil and  trouble'.
On the contrary, for all their transitory nature, bubbles infuse vitality into their surroundings.  What's more, they actively help to put troubles right.

Let me explain.
This riveting programme on an unlikely topic was presented by Dr. Helen Czerski, a bubble scientist.  Such was my ignorance that I'd never given bubbles serious thought, far less considered them to be a subject worthy of scientific research.
How wrong I proved to be!

The first fascinating fact relates to energy. Whereas I've been woefully ignorant of bubble power, penguins, it seems, have not.  Instead, they've long been accomplished at harnessing it for their own benefit.
Look carefully at these photos . . .
Do you see the way the penguins are projected out of the water on a buoyant boost of bubbles?

How do they do this?
Apparently, it's quite simple . . . before entering the water the penguin packs pockets of air under its wings and holds them close against its body.  Then, when it wishes to surface, it releases this trapped air in the form of active bubbles which effectively launch the penguin skywards and transport it safely back to land.
'Toil and trouble' . . . ?  I'd call it 'fun and flight'.

What's more, it seems that the penguin's ingenuity has given rise to a current scientific project.  Research is under way to produce commercial ships that are capable of propelling a steady flow of powerful bubbles in their wake.
The aim of this research? To increase the speed of the vehicle and, in addition, effectively reduce fuel consumption.
'Toil and trouble' . . . ?  Hardly, what about 'speed and sustainability'?

I wonder, are you planning any celebrations in the near future?  If so, there's another fascinating fact that you might find helpful.
The flavour of champagne, so we were told, varies according to the shape of the glass you use.
The reason?  You've guessed it . . . the bubbles!
It seems that the bubbles rising in a tall, thin glass have further to travel and accumulate a stronger and richer flavour en route.  For a lighter, subtler flavour, choose a glass of the rounder variety.

And, if that weren't enough, it would appear that there's far more to bubble research than imitating penguins or invigorating champagne.  For me, the most exciting revelation of this programme was in the field of medicine.  Bubbles, it seems, can be used by doctors in the administration of powerful drugs.

Let me try to explain this mind-blowing concept.
In the not too distant future it's planned that a bubble will be capable of holding a drug in suspension before being injected into a patient.  The bubble will be given a light dusting of iron filings which, believe it or not, will mean that a doctor will be able to gently guide it through the patient's blood system with the aid of a simple magnet.

Once the bubble has reached its chosen destination it can then be burst by oscillation . . . whereupon the drug will administer its benefit a the precise point where it's needed.
Isn't that incredible?

Bubbles to speed shipping, and help the environment . . . bubbles to alter the flavour of champagne . . . bubbles to bring precision to medicine.
And, before I forget, had you realised how the sound of bursting bubbles constantly enriches our lives?
What causes the wonderful roar of waves breaking on the shore . . .  the thunder of a waterfall . . . or the chuckling gurgle of a stream?   All these familiar sounds are brought to our ears not through the water itself, but through the mellifluous popping of a myriad bursting bubbles.

In the course of this programme, thanks to the knowledge and enthusiasm of Dr. Czerski, the under-rated bubble was transformed into what it truly is . . . a beautiful, magical and powerful aspect of creation.

Something has occurred to me as I've been writing this . . . I wonder whether it's occurred to you?

Albeit unconsciously, do we, too, use the bubble technique on a daily basis?
As of this moment, aren't I carefully sending you a message in a bubble?  To help it reach its destination I'm dusting it in language that I hope you'll enjoy, adding the lustre of pictures to give it sheen, and then guiding it on its way with the gentle magnet of humour.
I'm sending a message contained in a bubble because I want you to read it and share my thoughts.

Will it circumnavigate all the other bubbles currently circulating in your realm of communication?
Will it reach its destination safely, pop on arrival and deliver its message . . .?
Let me know if it does!

Saturday, April 20, 2013


The scientists in solemn conclave met,
Each bearing theses on the laws of flight.
That man had reached the moon they knew, but yet
Was there some flaw, some vital oversight?
The subject of their joint anxiety,
Who posed a question no-one could deny,
None other than the humble bumble-bee
Who, by all laws they knew, should never fly.
Those fragile wings could barely lift a flea,
That they should raise such bulk was quite absurd,
Yet how to reason with a trusting bee
Who, thinking it can fly, soars like a bird?
If faith can give the bee such liberty
What might I not achieve through trust in Thee?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

'B' is for . . .

I wonder if you picked up a fascinating item on the radio yesterday . . . the research into gelada monkeys and the source of speech.
It appears that anyone wishing to witness the origin of our modern day cacophony, should go to the Highlands of Ethiopia and study the gelada.

These talented monkeys, according to research by Dr. Thore Bergman, from the University of Michigan, " . . . make vocalisations that have some speech-like properties - it's the first time that that has been shown in a non-human primate."
He goes on to say that their sound, a cross between a yodel and a baby's gurgle, could have provided inspiration for our ancient grunting forebears.
Have we the geladas to thank for the fact that you and I, and everyone else, can now communicate?  I wonder.

Communication is something we all too easily take for granted.
If you've a moment to spare, could we share some thoughts on this fascinating subject?

It's hard to realise that once, not so very many centuries ago, we could only communicate with those within earshot.  It was only when Pandora's box was thrown open, when man devised the written word, that life was changed . . . it would never be the same again.
Now, as I sit here and write to you, we have at our disposal a mind-boggling variety of communication techniques . . .  facilities linking every region of the planet in an all-pervasive, unsleeping, inter-connecting web.
Full understanding may still trouble us.  Communication, however, is no longer a problem.

As I'm sure you'd agree, this need to communicate is one of mankind's dominant emotions.
After the bodily needs for air, food and water, surely the need to reach out, the need to make contact, is a basic stimulus for most of us?

And we've come a long way from the gelada monkeys in our quest for closer communication.  Our distant ancestors could, at first, communicate only by grunts.  It was out of the desire to share thoughts and experiences that language evolved.
But, as I've been discovering, the languages that emerged would appear far more subtle than the superficial information they carry.  Communication, surprisingly enough, still seems to be rooted in the grunting eloquence of the gelada.

You'd like proof of this theory?  Fine . . . let's start with the explosive sound of 'B'.
In the English language, consciously or unconsciously, we use the sound 'B' to denote size, strength and power.  When spoken it has an explosive quality that demands attention.  The sound 'P', on the other hand, is slightly apologetic and stuttering. You only have to look at the physical construction of the two letters to see their nature.  Whereas 'B' is buxom and double-barrelled, 'P' is poised prettily on its single stem.

If the sound of your voice won't startle someone in the vicinity, may I recommend that you listen to yourself reading the following optimistic sentence:
"The benevolent banker's bonus boosts the pensioner's petty pittance."
Do you see what I mean?
That sentence opens with all the confidence and bravura of the repeated 'B', and ends with a sequence of rather apologetic 'Ps'.

'P' may be more precise, even more poetic, but it's the bombastic and sometimes bellicose 'B' that gains the banner headlines.
And, just think, the launch of our universe would lose all credibility if it were downgraded from  a 'Big Bang' to a 'Plaintive Pop'!

Let's take another example, the letter 'G'.
It can't be mere coincidence that 'great' and 'good' and 'generous' all begin with 'G'.  It's a sound that resonates in the chest and carries a sense of stability and strength.

And did you notice what I noticed in that last sentence?  'S' was also displaying its inner message.  To 'stability' and 'strength' we can add 'substance' and 'sustainability'.
Mind you, as befits a letter facing in two directions, 'S' has a dual nature.  It also gives us 'shine' and 'sparkle', not to mention 'sly', 'suspicious' and 'suspense'.

Take any letter you like and its hidden message can be found lurking below the surface.  Why is alliteration so powerful?  Because it conveys that hidden message.

I wonder if you've anticipated where this is leading us?
I'm sure you have.  And the irony is that it casts serious doubts on the ability of this letter to communicate.

Communication, it would appear, needs to be voiced if it's to reveal its full meaning.  Words need the power of the voice, the voice needs the subtlety of tone and inflection, added to which we mustn't overlook the potency of the well-timed pause.  All these powerful components, coming together in harmony, render language meaningful.

This knowledge is nothing new. Down the ages, Bards and poets have extolled the power of oratory.
In his poem, "To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence", James Elroy Flecker asks his readers to:

". . . Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face
And never shake you by the hand
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you.  You will understand."

- Flecker, it seems recognised the vital contribution that sound brings to communication.

So . . . can we conclude that it's through listening, not simply emailing or texting, that contact is established?  That it's through the subtleties of sound that our thoughts and feelings are shared?
I think we can.
And would those eloquent gelada and our grunting forebears agree with this conclusion?
Oh, yes   . . . I'm confident they would!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Below the surface

In a funny way it was quite a relief when the doctor told me that I was suffering from brain trauma.  This explained the constant buzzing in my head and the frequent exhaustion.
It was trauma, the doctor explained, brought on by the fracture to my skull.  My brain, it appeared, had suffered a severe shock and would take several months to recover . . . in the meantime I needed to treat it gently.

It's strange, isn't it, you don't normally think of being gentle with your brain.  Yes, you acknowledge that the body gets tired, but the brain is supposed to  be inexhaustible and uncomplaining.  Thanks to my foolish fall, I've learned the fallacy of that belief!

But there's something else that I've learned this week, something that has a bearing on the brain and the process of thought.  It was a talk given by Craig Hamilton, and I found it fascinating.

I appears that over ninety per cent of our consciousness resides in the sub-conscious.  Like human icebergs, the major part of our vast operating system remains submerged.  Our conscious minds barely appear above the surface.

Just consider that thought for a moment . . . it makes sense.
When did you consciously pump your heart . . . or operate your gastric juices . . . or stimulate your saliva?  And even when we do pay attention to our breathing, it's all too easy to interfere with the natural rhythm and quickly become breathless.

Tell me, do you consciously think which muscles to employ before rising to your feet?  Or how to close your eyelids when you blink?
Come to that, were I to consciously assess the complexity of each finger's movement as I type this letter, it's quite certain that you'd never receive it!

But the picture is more comprehensive than that.
Our subconscious is not restricted to the realm of the physical.  Look at the way our minds still carry the programming of our distant forebears, people who lived in a very different world to ours.  Yet, taken by surprise, modern man will all too easily respond with the inappropriate reaction of fight or flight.

In contemporary terminology, our subconscious carries the software installed by our ancestors, our culture and our background.  Not only that, we each of us add to this programming by stowing away complex patterns of personal behaviour, ideas, habits, prejudices and enthusiasms.
The outcome?  Our reactions to events are largely prompted by our well-stocked and highly active subconscious, and it's truly sobering to realise how little of our daily lives is fresh and new and, as one might say, uncontaminated.

As Craig Hamilton explained, " . . . we're essentially running an outdated operating system.  And it's blocking the highest possibilities we could fulfill and the leaps we want to make, personally and collectively."

My traumatised brain has given me graphic proof of this programming.  Should there be bad news on the television or in the daily paper, I feel my fight or flight mechanism spring into action and tensions set up in the body.  Anxious thoughts, thoughts that have no basis in reality, enter and dominate my mind.

On the other hand, if Chloe makes me laugh, if there's uplifting music to enjoy, or if I gaze upwards into the unlimited potential of the open sky . . . then the body relaxes, the endorphins flow,  the buzzing in my head diminishes, and subconscious anxieties loosen their grip.

All of which, as I'm sure you've realised, leaves us with an important question.
If we accept the proposition that ninety per cent of our consciousness lurks out of sight and out of contact with the conscious mind, what then of that small percentage of awareness that succeeds in remaining above the surface?

The power-house of the subconscious is essential for our daily functioning, that's indisputable.  But surely it should be the perceptive awareness, the region above the water-line, that navigates the iceberg?  If that's true, and we want to be in charge, how do we locate this elusive region?

The answer, it would seem, is quite simple.   It lives in the 'now', in the present moment.

Impossible to describe, but instantly recognisable, it's that  precious quality of awareness that gives rise to surprise . . . and awe . . . and joy.
That moment when, instead of groping for preconceptions from an out-dated filing system, instead of pausing to think, ponder or cogitate, we open ourselves to the moment . . . and allow the light to shine in.

Let's give the final word on this subject to Carl Jung:
"Until you make the unconscious conscious," he wrote, "it will direct your life, and you will call it fate."