Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sir Isaac Newton—scientist, religionist, alchemist

By chance I am reading two books consecutively that present similar material from very different perspectives.

In 'The Case for God', Karen Armstrong presents a history of (mostly Western) society's perceptions of God. I'm now reading Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' which is basically a history of our understanding of science. There is of course some overlap and I'm glad to be reading both books to get a broader perspective.

Armstrong points out that 'in most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complimentary. Each had its own sphere of competence and it was considered unwise to mix the two.'₁

Bryson's book is more interested in logos, our logical scientific thinking. Perhaps Armstrong is more sympathetic to mythos, a way of thinking which is not intended to be interpreted literally.

From time to time extremely intelligent people attempt to bring the two together. Such was the case of Sir Isaac Newton who 'wanted to create a universal science capable of interpreting the whole of human experience.'₁

Newton brought us so much understanding—'the slosh and roll of ocean tides, the motions of planets, why cannonballs trace a particular trajectory before thudding back to earth, why we aren't flung into space as the planet spins beneath us'₂. But Newton was also extremely eccentric—'brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted…and capable of the most riveting strangeness'₂. (Read Bryson for more detail.)

Newton believed that the sun, planets and comets 'could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being'₃. 'He had hoped to provide a scientific proof for God's existence.'₁ He was trying to bring mythos and logos together. But, according to Bryson, 'at least half his working life was given over to alchemy and wayward religious pursuits.'₂ Apparently this brilliant man spent much of his time attempting to turn base metals into precious ones.

I'm quite fascinated by both of these books. I'm only touching the surface of each of them here. Perhaps, if time and inclination are conducive, I'll write a little more later.

1. Armstrong, Karen
The Case for God—what religion really means

The Bodley Head, 2009
Vintage, Random House, 2010

2. Bryson, Bill
A Short History of Nearly Everything

Doubleday, London, 2003
Black Swan, Transworld, London, 2004

3. Newton, Sir Isaac

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mother management

How do you get on with your mother? This book convinced me that having issues with your mother is perfectly normal. Psychotherapist, Alyce Faye Cleese interviewed over 100 well-known people about their mothers. This included Michael Caine, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Mia Farrow, Peter Gabriel, Hugh Hefner, Steve Martin, Liam Neeson, Michael Palin, Colin Powell, Keith Richards and others from various fields. They each had one thing in common—issues with their mother.

The book is entertaining as it includes many funny anecdotes as well as a few sad stories. It helped me to be more at peace with my mother. I could see my relationship with my mother reflected in some of the stories. I recommend this book to anyone who has a mother. Also, I recommend it to anyone who is a mother, no matter how old your children are, as it may help you to avoid some of the negativity that is commonly inflicted onto children by mothers who of course are only trying to do their best.

Cleese, Alyce Faye and Bates, Brian
How to manage your mother—understanding the most difficult, complicated and fascinating relationship in your life

Metro Books, London, 1999
Regan Books, New York, 2000

Saturday, September 18, 2010


'…the parallels between what has been happening in the Market and what is happening in Mother Nature are eerie. In both realms, what used to be once-in-a-century events—unusually powerful storms, heat waves, or global financial crises—are now happening with greater and greater frequency, with greater and greater virulence, and the costs of the cleanups are going higher and higher. In both realms industries that benefited from the underpricing of risks—whether they are credit-default swaps or carbon emissions—quietly lobbied the political authorities to keep loosening regulations so they could continue to reap large private gains at the expense of the greater public good. In both realms, companies and lobbyists funded and diffused "research" that muddied the waters and confused the public about the real dangers that were building up as a result of this widespread underpricing of risks. Eventually, even the terminology merged: We began to speak about "predatory lending" and "financial tsunamis" and "financial perfect storms" and "market meltdowns." Finally, just as a few farsighted financial experts warned us that the market could experience an extreme meltdown—one much worse than the models predicted—if we continued inflating the credit bubble, so a few farsighted scientists have been warning us about the same thing happening to the natural world if we continue inflating the carbon bubble.'

My friend didn't like this book, rejected it before finishing the first chapter, said it was 'too preachy'. I think we need a few more preachers like this. Unfortunately if no one is listening then we and/or our descendants are simply going to have to suffer the consequences. Perhaps too many are reluctant to give up their present lifestyle. It is easier to label those who give appropriate warnings as being 'preachy' than to change ones lifestyle.

It seems to me that if people won't change their behaviour the only way to bring about change is for governments to take the hard decisions—which is difficult in a democracy;it gets you voted out—and change the culture. I remember when it was a part of Australian culture for people to go out and get drunk and then drive home. I did it myself. Fortunately, we had governments that were prepared to take the hard decisions and now we have a different culture. It is no longer considered acceptable in Australia to drive while drunk. I welcome the time when it is no longer acceptable to spend money we don't have to buy things we don't need so we can impress people we don't really care much about.

Here's another extract that speaks to me: '…what the struggle for freedom was to our parents' generation, the struggle for "sustainability" has to be for the Re-Generation. Sustainability is today's freedom crusade, because the next generation will not live free—will not have the freedom to pursue its economic dreams or to delight in all that nature has to offer—if our approach to the financial world and the natural and not grounded in sustainable values. That lack of sustainability will constrict everything in our lives. It will limit everything we might want to do. Unless we become less dependent on hydrocarbons, and unless we find a balance between the need for markets to be free enough to reward innovation and risk-taking but not so free as to reward recklessness that can destabilise the whole global economy, our lives will be reduced, redacted, and restricted. We will be overwhelmed by all the toxic assets we will produce in the Market and in Mother Nature. It will feel worse than had the Soviet Union won the Cold War, because we and our children will be enslaved by our financial debts and constricted by our ecological debts.'

Preach on Tom.

Friedman, Thomas L
Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Why the world needs a green revolution—and how we can renew our global future
release 2.0, updated and expanded
Penguin Books, 2009

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pushing the boundaries of fear

While I haven't read many of Tim Winton's books I include him in my two favourite Australian writers based on what I have read.

Recently I read 'The Turning', a collection of stories. Each is complete in itself but after you've read a few you realise that the central character in this story was a minor character in an earlier story. So you're getting bits of different interrelated lives and seeing the world of a small West Australian town from various viewpoints.

'Breath' is a novel about fear and how some choose to push their boundaries taking deeper and deeper risks. As a storyteller I love a story that grabs me, that gives me a little information but hints that there's a lot more coming. I know this isn't the only way to write a novel but I sure enjoy those that have this quality. 'Breath' is a perfect example of this style of writing. It kept me reading until the end. Just how far will they go with their risk-taking?

The writing style is deceptively simple Australian vernacular (often surfing vernacular) but is in fact much richer than that. It's an easy read and very rewarding.

Winton, Tim
The Turning
Picador, 2005

Penguin, 2008