Douglas inspires


Often the delete key is my friend. A thou­sand word post has dis­ap­peared. I was going to post a response to someone else’s post, and use this video of Douglas Adams as an example of pos­it­ive athe­ism. I’m tired of yet another post from someone who says “I’m an athe­ist, but you mustn’t talk about athe­ism or offend the reli­gious because athe­ists are nasty.”

Then I thought if that’s the case why bother? The people who tend to write such posts don’t have any­thing inter­est­ing or pos­it­ive to say apart from scowl­ing at other people who do. Religious people can pro­duce great works, like Handel’s Messiah which has a reli­gious mes­sage in it some­where. Then you get books like Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, that show the sense of won­der you can have in the work­ings of the uni­verse. Yet I can­not think of any­thing remotely inspir­a­tional writ­ten in the heart­felt belief that com­prom­ise is by its nature the goal. No one looks at a beau­ti­ful land­scape, sighs, and says, “It’d be so much bet­ter if there was a small indus­trial estate in the way. Y’know to bal­ance the envir­on­mental and eco­nomic needs of society.”

So instead I’ll just put up the video that TED made pick of the week. If you’re intent on some Sunday athe­ism it’s around 1h 10m in, I think. It’s only a short bit about God. That’s fair enough because it’s a big uni­verse with lots fas­cin­at­ing stuff in it includ­ing his Last Chance to See project.

Celebrating one year of blogging


Christopher O’Brien is cel­eb­rat­ing one year of blog­ging at Northstate Science. I have to admit I’ve only been read­ing it reg­u­larly for the past few months, but its a fas­cin­at­ing site. I like his recent posts on Apologetics Archaeology (Part One) (Part Two), but theres more there, like this part of a dis­cus­sion on how her­it­age pre­ser­va­tion works in the USA. Or how about this on Bone Fragments and Archaeology? If you’re bored of archae­ology then there are entries on those pyr­am­ids instead.

But if you read just one entry then make it this one on Zooarchaeology and Family Living.

Another reason why Leicester is an interesting place


iScience Menu
Derek explains the recep­tion menu at the pi-CETL launch

I sup­pose this should go up on the i-Science blog, but it would seem odd. I know Derek doesn’t read this site so I can say what I like about him here. I was at the launch of the Leicester branch of pi-CETL. pi-CETL is a multi-university con­sor­tium look­ing into teach­ing Physics in innov­at­ive ways. It was quite a big do and we had the vice-chancellor in to open the centre. I feel there’s not enough vice in my life, so I would have liked to have talked to him about get­ting some more, but he was busy. I also got to hear Derek Raine, the brains behind the Leicester sec­tion of pi-CETL and I thought he gave a stel­lar demon­stra­tion of the kind of thing that makes Leicester inter­est­ing. Derek has a pas­sion for Physics, but that’s no sur­prise, any lec­turer is keen on their own sub­ject. What he also has are pas­sions for the sci­entific method and passing this on to other people. Those two are rarer.

For instance there are sci­ent­ists who decide to work with some ancient his­tory or archae­ology and end up pulling any­thing that looks like their interest out of the past. So you end up with gyn­ae­co­lo­gists who announce that Stonehenge is a giant womb. It tells us noth­ing about the past only about the researcher. Similarly you get phys­i­cists who’ll talk about pos­sible life on other worlds purely in terms of their phys­ical prop­er­ties without enga­ging with the bio­logy. Did you know there could be life on the Moon? Someone sneezed on some of the Apollo 11 Surveyor 3 equip­ment and when Apollo 12 brought a sample back they brough back some Streptococcus mitis which sur­vived on the Moon. It didn’t flour­ish as far as I know, but life is a lot har­dier than many people believe. It came as a shock, at least to phys­i­cists, because microbe sur­vival didn’t fea­ture in any of the ques­tions they were ask­ing.
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Creating Myth


This is a slightly re-written ver­sion of a short piece I wrote else­where. I’m put­ting it up here because it tackles a timely prob­lem. What do you do when you want to attract tour­ist dol­lars, but keep los­ing out to that big archae­olo­gical site down the road? The cit­izens of Chucuito saw at the bus­loads of vis­it­ors going to Tiahuanaco and decided to build their own temple. The prob­lem is that Tiahuanaco is pretty impress­ive so any com­pet­i­tion would either have to be equally large, or else some­thing pretty noteworthy.

Inca? Temple
Chucuito Fertility Temple. Photo by Moonbird.

Welcome to the Inca Ullo temple of fertility.

A researcher invest­ig­at­ing Inca sites dis­covered that twelve years ago the people of Chucuito decided to build their own authen­tic ruins dat­ing from the 1500s. They then con­coted a legend that women would visit the temple to ask for fer­til­ity. Twenty four stone phal­luses later, they had one killer photo oppor­tun­ity and thou­sands of vis­it­ors. You can see more pho­tos at Jerry Peek’s site, or Rhymer​.net. You might be won­der­ing, “Is this safe for work?” but how unsafe could a temple devoted to penis wor­ship be?

The story made a small splash on the web, with brief notices from Ananova and The Commonwealth Times. The Sun had a big­ger story, com­plete with pic­ture. We can only be thank­ful the reporter didn’t know that the early 1500s in some parts of Peru is known as the Wanka period. The International Herald Tribune only seems to have picked up the story this spring.

The decep­tion raises some inter­est­ing ques­tions about con­sump­tion of the past. Is it a fake site? The answer might seem to be pretty obvi­ously yes, but what does it mean for a site to be fake? A lot of the myth sur­round­ing King Arthur is made up. Yet people would accept Glastonbury as a genu­ine Arthurian site but reject Milton Keynes as hav­ing any role in the myth. Surely a lot of Milton Keynes would be explained by an Arthurian curse on the land. The bound­ary between real and fake isn’t hard and fast when look­ing at mythic sites, as Cornelius Holtorf noted in an earlier ver­sion of this post. Does a myth accrue authen­ti­city with the passing of cen­tur­ies, or can myths be cre­ated today?

I sus­pect the rev­el­a­tion will only increase vis­itor num­bers because now it’s a ‘con­tro­ver­sial’ site. Indeed if Disney made a heart­warm­ing film of plucky vil­la­gers build­ing a fake temple to save the local orphan­age from clos­ing then it would become even more of a draw. Is this site, and her­it­age sites in gen­eral, selling know­ledge or exper­i­ence? One for Michael Shanks or Cornelius Holtorf I think. For a less post-modern approach to exper­i­ence there’s the Trireme Veterans for Truth.

Library Thing


I signed up for this ages ago, but my lib­rary stalled at four books. I thought it was an excel­lent idea, but cata­loguing prop­erly would take a lot of time. I had some unex­pec­ted free time today and found that agood thing has become even bet­ter. With a bit more of an explore I can now see lists of tagged books for a sub­ject like ancient his­tory. It’s just very very won­der­ful. I’m mak­ing a note now to remind myself when I get home to sign up for a sub­scrip­tion account. Books from my pro­file will be appear­ing in the right bar shortly.

Isn’t Anaximander Wonderful?


Mosaic Depicting Anaximander
Mosaic depict­ing Anaximander with a sundial.

Tangled BankIt’s hard to know how to open some­thing on Anaximander. Herodotus had the right idea. “This is the dis­play of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be for­got­ten in time, and that great and mar­velous deeds, some dis­played by the Hellenes, some by the bar­bar­i­ans, not lose their glory…

Unfortunately Herodotus, whose his­tory is the earli­est that sur­vives, was writ­ing a couple of cen­tur­ies too late to record Anaximander and that’s shame. From the scant inform­a­tion that does sur­vive Anaximander may be one of the all-time greats of sci­ence, up there with Newton, Darwin and Einstein. Unlike Archimedes or Pythagoras none of his ideas remain in use in sci­ence today, but his achieve­ment is that he is argu­ably the man whose work made sci­ence possible.

There are plenty of reas­ons to like Anaximander. One is that he should be a very easy philo­sopher to be an expert on. Only two frag­ments of what appear to be his own words sur­vive.

1. ‘Immortal and indes­truct­ible,’ ‘sur­rounds all and dir­ects all.‘
2. ‘(To that they return when they are des­troyed) of neces­sity; for he says that they suf­fer pun­ish­ment and give sat­is­fac­tion to one another for injustice.’

Translation by Arthur Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece

By them­selves they look pretty mean­ing­less and short. Apart from mem­or­ise them there’s not a lot else you can do. Job done. However you’re sup­posed to look at them in con­text, and Anaximander has an awful lot of con­text.
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Isn’t the Gospel of Saint Mark Wonderful?


The Good Book
The Good Book. Photo by Xerones.

Carnival of the Godless ButtonAs a fire and brim­stone athe­ist I sup­pose I should berate the Gospels as pil­lars of an out­moded super­sti­tion. Yet while I don’t find the reli­gious mes­sage in them com­pel­ling, there is some good writ­ing and some good tales. I don’t see any more con­vin­cing evid­ence for the exist­ence of gods in the Gospel of Saint Mark than I do in Herodotus but, like Herodotus, Mark can tell a tale well.
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