Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Questions Of Science

The problem with reading a copy of New Scientist on a short flight is that it rekindles the lost academic potential within you - it's a slim chance at the best of times but some 25 years ago science was my best hope of a career. Now I struggle to spell Avagadro let alone remember the man of Turin's famous number but that's life, I suppose.

So I pose a little question - which of the four fundamental forces in nature baffles scientists most as the other three can be explained by the exchange of force-carrying particles? Let me put you out of your misery - it's gravity. Einstein explained it as the force which arises from the smooth warping of space-time by massive objects. Does that sound double dutch to you? I hope so. For the layman, the explanation of 'smooth' is anything which behaves according to a nice equation however much the said equation looks like a set of scripts from a Dead Sea Scroll.

Gravity is the one force which cannot be explained by quantum theory. There have been approximations and strings but realistically they are merely theories which have yet to be proven by any physical evidence.

I put forward another natural phenonemon which defies 'particular' definition and constantly elludes the wit of man - coincidence. This is the happenstance of two seemingly unrelated events occurring from which we may may infer a connection, however tenuous. Well that's my definition anyway. I am talking about the bizarre oddment of me being in Berlin and reading about the premier of 'I,Robot' on the plane over and then literally bumping into Will Smith on the pavement outside the Four Seasons Hotel less than a few hours later. Finer analysis would have shown that the article was in the BA magazine, advertising the route to Berlin where the premier of 'I,Robot' was taking place because Audi were a major sponsor - so the scene was set, the stars aligned. If I happened to be walking along the road at roughly the time Will, as he likes to be called, was going to the cinema with his family then I would bump into him.

That can be explained when using probability theory and the two itineraries (Will's and mine) - we happened to be in the same place at the same time so it may have been more likely we would have bumped into one another. But consider this - and yes I get political here because I am sick to death of it and I cannot stand the man - that Peter Mandelson is invited to have a free holiday on the luxurious, multi-million dollar boat of a very significant player in the world of films and downloads (we are talking David Geffen of Dreamworks here) and less than a week later officials are told to draft laws to punish illegal downloaders of content, even if it is the people who post the content who are doing the real wrongs.

But Peter defies the statistical evidence much more than this. On the same holiday, he has a chance meeting with Colonel Gaddafi's lush looking son and next thing we know the Lockerbie bomber is freed. Fancy that. It reminds us of other rather coincidental events - like the Hinduja Brothers wanting UK passports so there is a donation to the Dome Fund. Or perhaps that Peter spends time on a Russian aluminium tycoon's yacht and then there is an EU vote in favour of lowering tariffs on importing the self same commodity making the self same oligarch incredibly more wealthy. By an an even more science-defying coincidence, the very pages in Peter's diaries covering the dates of the first meeting with the self same oligarch are 'lost' while he is moving back from Brussels and having a gall bladder issue solved.

I wish I had the scientific nous to define a theory to govern all this but it elludes a feeble brain like mine. My curse is to wonder why a twice disgraced dodgy dealer is allowed back into Government as an unelected offical and peer of the realm and then gets to run the country. That is the one thing you cannot put down to the strange law of coincidence - this was premeditated stupidity on behalf of the weakest PM we have had since Chamberlain.

One thing which is not a coincidence is that on the weekend that Gordon Brown chose to continue his holiday and not to open a centre for injured troops we found out that the tally of dead heroes in Afghanistan rose to 204 and the toll of injured troops was over 900 in the last three months alone.

Science can be baffling - the obvious can be even more baffling.

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