29 August 2008

Weird physics

Here’s an interesting snippet from the physics arXiv blog. It is usually assumed that nuclear decay rates are constant, but re-examination of some data from the 1980s seems to suggest that the decay rates of silicon-32 and radium-226 vary on an annual cycle. What is more, the variations are synchronized with each other and with the Earth’s distance from the Sun. The folk who have re-analysed the data have suggested two possible explanations:

First, they say a theory developed by John Barrow at the University of Cambridge in the UK and Douglas Shaw at the University of London, suggests that the sun produces a field that changes the value of the fine structure constant on Earth as its distance from the sun varies during each orbit. Such an effect would certainly cause the kind of an annual variation in decay rates that Jenkins and co highlight.

Another idea is that the effect is caused by some kind of interaction with the neutrino flux from the sun’s interior, which could be tested by carrying out the measurements close to a nuclear reactor (which would generate its own powerful neutrino flux).

For more on this, see Do nuclear decay rates depend on our distance from the sun?

07 August 2008

Stanislaw Lem: turning grass into milk

Stanislaw Lem offers an interesting metaphor for the creative process (h/t: Taking Note):

‘A cow produces milk—that is certain—and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to produce milk, I have to read large amounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds—i.e. literature not invented by me—and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass.’ (Microworlds, p. 25)

I like this image. It is a useful reminder that creativity is rarely a matter of plucking ideas from the air. In its light my compulsive reading and note-taking becomes a matter of grazing: gathering the essential raw materials for the creative process. And the image also highlights the fact that writing of any value is never merely the regurgitation of what you have grazed. It is always about creating a new synthesis of the raw materials (milk rather than partially digested grass).

06 August 2008

The meaning of life

A few words from Pope Benedict’s recent speech in Australia:

‘Life is not just a succession of events or experiences, helpful though many of them are. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth. Christ offers more. Indeed, he offers everything. Only he who is the Truth can be the Way and hence also the Life.’

05 August 2008

After Lambeth: Where do we go from here?

So the Lambeth Conference is over and I am sure I am not alone among Anglicans in wondering, where we go from here.

That question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ reminded me of an anecdote Lesslie Newbigin used to tell about the conference at which the World Council of Churches was constituted. Here is the story as it appeared in a letter to his wife:

‘Karl Barth gave us a tremendous oration on the fundamental theme of the conference. It was real prophecy and compelled everyone, I think, to look beyond our plans and self-importance to the living God. Some people were very annoyed by it, but I more and more feel that it was needed. In the evening at the reception Pierre Maury asked me what I thought of it. I said, “It was magnificent, but where do we go from there?” Just at that moment Barth appeared, so Maury repeated my question to him. He said, “Into the next room of course”, and went! Which was the right answer; I mean that Barth demolishes all one’s plans with his terrific prophetic words, and one is left wondering what to do next; and his answer always is, Just get on with the next plain duty.’ (Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 110f)

In the face of all the anxieties over the future of the Anglican Communion, ‘Just get on with the next plain duty’ seems like wise advice for us all.