Monday, 28 September 2015

The Science of Fine Tuning

Did you know that if the mass of Jupiter was greater than it is then Earth's orbit would become unstable, meaning our planet would drift either closer to, or further from, the sun? Earth is approximately 93 million miles from the sun and a change of more than a million miles or so would render life on Earth impossible. Equally if the mass of Jupiter was lesser than it is, Earth would receive far more asteroid and comet collisions, too many to sustain human life. The same things are also true is Jupiter was closer or further away from us.

Life on Earth is ridiculously unlikely when you look at all of the requirements. The study of such requirements is known as the Science of Fine Tuning. There are a lot of requirements.

The Earth tilts on its axis at 23.5 degrees, which prevents the planet from becoming too hot or too cold. One or two degrees different and there would be no life here.

The reason for the tilt is because of our moon, which is the perfect size and sits at the perfect distance. This also means we get the wonder of eclipses, when the moon lines up with the Earth and the Sun for dramatic effects.

Other necessities for life include oxygen and nitrogen levels and the ratio between them; the thickness of the Earth's crust; the length of one rotation of the planet; the surface gravity; the amount of seismic and volcanic activity (yes these things are vital for life); the quantity of water and the quantity of salt in the oceans (3.4% - which is equivalent the quantity of salt in our blood streams), quantities of chlorine in our atmosphere and iron in the soil, and many more things I cannot comprehend (such as the quantity of iodocarbon-emitting marine organisms).

If such things do not make you wonder about life on Earth, how it exists and how precious it is, I don't know what will.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

From the Private's diary

Dawn had not yet broken as HMS Inconstant arrived in Rosyth Harbour at 6 am, March 5th, 1918. It had been a night without event, which by then was not so unusual, especially for the light cruisers, although the cold March winds across the North Sea, and off the East coast of Scotland meant there was little joy on board.
     The day was grey and plain, without rain, but the fifteenth century ruins of Rosyth Castle, rising above the new walls of the dockyard in which the admiralty had trapped it, were damp and blurred by the sea spray from the Firth of Forth. At one time the Castle had been surrounded almost completely by the river and over the years had been passed through many hands, but by 1903, and having been partly dismantled, it became the property of the Admiralty and soon after lost its position on the waterfront due to land reclamation for the dockyard. The Castle that had withstood many battles had been replaced by a modern defence, but still men fought to defend it.
     Having docked, the crew of HMS Inconstant set about oiling and watering the ship down. This took time, but was a well practised routine and meant little to the men and it only gained brief mentions in the diaries and letters of those who liked to write. Private Ligertwood was one of those, jotting down short notes whenever he could find a spare moment. He also liked to draw and sketch and having some free time he learned how to draw a pig with his eyes shut, and proved his success by pencilling one into his pocket diary.
     By the following morning the weather was even more unsettled, and very cold. The wind was causing problems, and the sporadic showers left everyone irritable and short tempered. The lack of orders was not helping either and although the harbour was busy, crowded with vessels and shouting, their was a general feeling of boredom amongst the men. On deck some went through rigorous fitness exercises, while down below others played cards, chess, chequers, or wrote letters, poems, diaries, anything to keep their minds occupied.
     Fred Ligertwood liked his writing, and particularly liked words. He enjoyed spelling them out, and putting them together and it was always a disappointment he didn’t have time to write more; another curse of the war. He was a young man, typical of those in the forces. He’d joined up in 1914, illegally, as he’d only been 14 at the time (instead of the required 15). Like many others, he had lied his way into the Royal Marines. Four years on he was still there, and no less happy or thrilled by the boyish feeling of being part of the War.
     He’d played his part, quite literally, when he’d blown the Bugle to begin the first attack in the Battle of Jutland, possibly the biggest Naval battle of the war to date. It had lasted almost two days from May 31st to June 1st, 1916, off the coast of Denmark. The Germans intended to lure out a portion of the British navy and defeat it, but as per usual with all well made plans, particularly in war, things were never going to be that simple. By the end of the battle many ships and even more lives had been lost, on both sides, but the British remained in command of the sea and therefore saw it as a victory for them. HMS Inconstant had returned unscathed and for her crew the war had gone on.
     At the entrance to the harbour HMS Champion, who had also been at Jutland as the leader of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla, was on the lookout for submarines, while most other ships were under ‘short notice’. At 1pm they were put under 1 hour’s notice. The white ensign was flying at the masthead of Inconstant and they were secured for sea, but they didn’t get ‘under weigh’ until 5.30pm. HMS Courageous led the way out of the harbour, the other ships filing in behind, like people from a stadium after a match has finished. For these men, though, the nervous excitement was only just beginning. Most of them knew nothing of their mission, but Private Ligertwood noted in his diary – “Weather expected to be very rough – buzz about convoy being sunk in North Sea.”
     In the end he never discovered if this rumour was true because the weather was beyond rough. So much so that at 11.50pm all ships were ordered to return to base. This alone took over 5 hours and they eventually entered the harbour under the early morning light. Private Ligertwood felt a little the worse for wear and submitted himself to the sick list. A quick injection later and he returned to update his diary. “Blinking sore.”

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Sports Fans

As much as football crowds in the UK have a bad reputation both for being crude and occasionally violent, they do also contain a seed of that brilliant British humour. Only a football crowd would sing "Is there a fire drill?" while the losing opposition fans head for the exits before the conclusion of a match.

Cricket fans, however, have to top them for being able to create a great atmosphere with fewer members in attendance. Although only at cricket matches do you get supporters of the winning team leaving before the conclusion because they've got to get home for their tea.

Rugby fans, predictably, are the most hardy of supporters, being the ones most happy to continue watching in an open stadium in a downpour, although a match is only 80 minutes long.

The best all round supporters, however, are probably those who follow individual sports such as golf and tennis because they are most appreciative of great play regardless of who is successful, and that is something I wish would transfer to all sports grounds, because I think it is something that is in all fans.

Friday, 4 September 2015

East of Eden

Having finished reading my second John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden, I am quite happy to include him in my list of favourite authors. Steinbeck seems to me to be someone who saw the world very clearly and on picking up his pen was able to write about it in a way that made it clear to others. He seems to have understood people and the way they work, pointing out things that aught to be obvious but somehow the rest of us missed, or at least could never put into words.

East of Eden begins slowly and for a good many pages (the edition I have has 714 pages) I was unsure of where the story was going. As the book unfolds, however, the characters become more real and the connection to the story from the beginning of Genesis is more apparent. For those who have read the opening chapters of the Bible, as I have, it may seem obvious what will happen to the characters, in particular Aron and Caleb, but Steinbeck is clever enough to keep you from guessing correctly.

The overarching theme of the novel can be summed up in this quote: "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?"
     Each character battles this inside themselves and comes to different conclusions, and, at different times in the book, I empathised with many of them. There is Cal, who tries to be good, although struggles to do so openly and often ends up getting it wrong, and in return receives both guilt and blessing. While Aron is summed up by another character, Abra, thus: "Aron didn't grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn't stand to have it come out any other way."
     Steinbeck also gives Abra this to say, which makes sense to me: "When you're a child you're the centre of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They're only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you're your own size and shape. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It's worse, but it's much better too."

Steinbeck successfully avoids having good characters and bad characters and instead has real characters. This matched with beautiful writing is an excellent formula and one that has kept me thoroughly engaged and given me much to think about. I would encourage everyone to investigate his work and find out what they can learn from it, and for the pleasure of a good read.