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Sunday, 13 April 2014

My boomerang won't come back

"You got your fingers in the wrong place again," Susan tells me, as she's giving me a lesson out in the open air, now that Spring has come.

"I haven't done this before," I say. "It's not easy."

"Do exactly what I say and you'll be fine," she says. "Curl your fingers around and hold it at an angle to the vertical. That's it. Now throw."

The two of us watch the little boomerang soar over the grass then plummet into a cowpat. "This isn't easy," I say, as we set off to retrieve it. "Are you sure they ever come back? Maybe it's one of those urban myths for wee boys."

"The big boys on Bondi Beach had no trouble with their boomerangs," she says. 

"That's just tacky," I tell her. "And tactless. Just because I have skinny legs and don't know how to hold a boomerang. It's not a survival skill in the West of Scotland. I can dance, dribble a ball and solve differential equations. What more do you want?"

She raises her eyebrows in a manner that says way more than words. "It is a beautiful object," I say, studying the images of Australian animals, painted on the polished wood. "But it's very annoying. My hunter's instincts, honed by millennia of male evolution, should make this easy for me."

"Your hunter's instincts?" she says.

"The ones that make me good at throwing a javelin and parking a car," I tell her. "While you can cook, sew and find things in cupboards. That's your gatherer's instincts."

"Shut up and throw the boomerang," she says.

"I'll try one more time," I say. "Then I'm going to the pub. Why couldn't you get me a present from Australia that wouldn't make me look an idiot?"

"I was only there three weeks," she says.

"Very good," I say, grabbing the shit-covered shaft. "Read the instructions again, will you please?"

"Stand at an angle to the wind," she says. "Hold the boomerang with one of its aerodynamic arms pointing away from you. Throw overhand and snap your wrist to make it spin. Once it's in flight do not look away. If you lose sight of it, adopt the 'mystery boomerang position'." 

"I love that bit," I tell her.

"Turn your back, cover your head with your arms and crouch down," she reads. "If the boomerang hits you in the back it was a good throw."

"Last chance for one of those," I say, throwing hard, snapping my wrist and watching with pleasure as the little flying-machine soars through the air and starts banking left. The ground comes up and smacks it some distance away from us, but it's the first sign that I'm getting the hang of this.

"Always stop on a high when learning a new skill," I tell Susan in the pub later. "Makes you keen to try again. What was the best part of your holiday in Australia then?"

"My boy took me out for dinner on the last night, to the Melbourne restaurant where he's chef. I got him all to myself for the first time in years and we chatted for hours. It was a lovely evening."

She studies the bubbles in her beer. "He will come home," I tell her. "In a year or two."

"I'm not so sure," she says. "They've a great life out there. I think it'll be a long time before I see him again." 

"Family's too important to him," I say. "He'll return, same as you. You went all the way there and flew home again. You're a bit of a boomerang, yourself."

"Elegantly curved and aesthetically pleasing?" she says. 

"Comes back covered in sh...," I start to say, when my hunter's instincts sense her intention, I swiftly adopt the mystery boomerang position, and her raised hand passes harmlessly over my head.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Potted guide to particle physics

CERN terrasse
Just as my son and I are headed our separate ways from the Òran Mór, I get a phone call from the University to say the profs I'm meeting are half an hour behind, so we head back inside and order a couple of orange and sodas. 

"You've been to CERN," he says. "Give me the potted guide to particle physics. But none of your jargon. Keep it simple."

"Well let's see," I say. "There are twelve elementary particles. First you got quarks, squarks, protons and squotons. Then there's electrons, neutrons, matrons, cisterns, grains of sand, steel girders, dark matter and belly button fluff. Everything in the universe is made out of those."

"What holds them together?" he says. "What gives them shape and structure?"

"Good question," I say. "The four fundamental forces do that - gravity, electromagnetism, rock music and sex."

"I'm wondering how they know all this," he says. "Experiments I guess. They couldn't just make it up." 
Source of protons for LHC
"Course they couldn't," I say. "At CERN they mostly use protons from a little red bottle on the wall. But they can't just shoot them straight into the Large Hadron Collider, because they'd get trampled to death by the big guys already in there. So they do it in stages.

"First they give them a wee boost in the Booster, then a physicist on a Harley Davidson picks them up and does the wall of death around two circular machines, called the Proton Synchrotron and the Super Proton Synchrotron, before tossing them at high speed into the Large Hadron Collider. 
CERN accelerator complex

"Sometimes this is too much for one of the protons, which gets over-excited and tries to exceed the speed of light. But that means it could travel back in time and stop itself coming out the bottle. Nature won't permit a paradox, so it surrounds the proton with a little bubble universe that floats away over the Jura Mountains. It's how our own universe began, 13.8 squillion years ago."

"What's a squillion?" he says.

"Part of the numbering system used in physics," I say. "You got thousands, millions, billions, squillions, gazillions and infinity."

"How am I supposed to remember that?" he says.

"There's a mnemonic," I say. "Three Mad Badgers Sail the Galaxy Inaspaceship."

"That took a lot of thought," he says. 

"It's what physicists are good at," I say.  

"Carry on," he says. "This is exactly what I wanted."

"Well some scientists think the bubble universe stays attached to ours by a piece of string. Others say there's no evidence for string, and the stuff gardeners tie up straggly plants with is a figment of imaginations clouded by too much contact with fresh air and creepy crawlies."

"I thought a figment was the smallest dried fruit in a packet," he says.

"It is," I say. "Some are so small they're imaginary."

"Right, carry on."

"Well the objections to string are strong," I say. "Calculations show you can make 10520 different universes out of string. That's a lot more than you can create out of quarks, squarks and girders. It's bigger than any known number, including infinity. So they've made a mistake somewhere."

"I bet they multiplied instead of dividing," he says. "I did that all the time at school."

"Me too," I say. "I'll check their sums and get back to you. Will that do for now?"

"That's great, thanks," he says. 

"Next time will you do the potted history of art for me?" I say.

"No worries," he says. "Do you want me to go right back to Mammoths in a Cave? Art historians often start later, with the Smug Bastard in a Mustache school. That's popular. So is the Big Naked Women Eating Fruit period."

"Whatever you think," I say. "You're the expert."

"Depends how much time we have," he says. "We need to leave plenty for Nailing Shopping Trolleys to a Wall. That's the prevailing school nowadays so it's the most important." 

"I look forward to that," I tell him. "See ya."

"See ya," he says and buggers off out of my life for another week.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The eyes have it

My niece Cathy is a fine photographer, with a nice eye for composition, and since you learn that by starting young, I'm going to claim some credit for her proficiency. Because I bought her her first camera when she was eight. 

It wasn't a great camera but that's not the point. No doubt her mum and dad bought her better ones as she got older. But I was the one who got her started. 

But here's the thing. I've noticed a certain expression on the faces of the guys in her photos. Puzzled, perplexed, bewildered. Take a look at Brian holding the little dog in pyjamas. 

Believe me, that's a very smart guy you're looking at. And Brian has brains too. But you wouldn't think it, would you? So what's going on?

Well I've seen that expression in the mirror and on the faces of a hundred strangers on the street, and I have a theory. Modern life is too complicated for the average male brain. 

"I mean look what it evolved to deal with," I tell my son, as we're having a beer in Òran Mór, the former church that's now a licensed arts venue with its own ale. "Grass, trees, shite and zebras.

"And what does it have to contend with now? Mobile phones, tax returns, speed cameras and coalition government. Is it any wonder we look perpetually perplexed?" 

"What worries me is the guys that don't," he says. "You see them striding around in their dark suits and camel-hair coats, looking manly and purposeful. Where do they get that air of certainty from?"

"Two possibilities," I tell him, taking a sip of the hoppy, refreshing ale. "One, it's an act and soon as they're out of sight their expressions revert to bemused, like ours."

"And two?" he says

"They're a different species."

"Not that old conspiracy theory," he says. "Aliens running the world. Tony Blair is a lizard from Alpha Draconis."

"He might be but that's not what I mean. I'm talking human but different. Convergent evolution. Happens all the time in nature. The beaked sea-snake, the white marlin and the roundscale spearfish, David Cameron and Oswald Cobblepot."

Always willing to give ideas an airing, my son starts nodding. "You could be right," he says, looking around the high-ceilinged room. "It would explain all those young couples who check out fine but can't have kids together."

"That's right," I say. "Different species can look similar but they can't breed." 

"There might be ten different species of human in this room right now," he says.

"There might," I say. "You and I could be different species."

"How does that work when you're my dad?" he says.

"Good point," I say. "Well spotted. We must be the same species. But we might be the only ones in this room."

"So is there some test, other than trying to have kids with people?" he says. "Which isn't always convenient."

"Family are the same," I say. "Me, you, your brother, my mum, my sister."

"Cathy and Brian?" he says.

"Same species, definitely," I say.

"What about strangers?" he says. "How can you tell?"

"Switch your brain off," I tell him. "Trust your instinct. Try it around the room," I say nodding in the direction of the next table. "Guy in jeans."

"Same," he says.

"Woman next to him."

"Different. You do get a feel for it, don't you? Have a go yourself," he says, pointing. "Her."

"Same," I say.

"Him," he says. 

"That's a dog," I say. "That's a different species, obviously."

"Well is it, though," he says. "Is it obvious? If things that look the same can be different species, why can't things that look different be the same species?"

I stroke my beard and ponder. "You're right, of course," I tell him. "This puts a whole new slant on things. Makes the world even more confusing than I thought. How can we be sure of anything now?" 

"It's got to be expression, hasn't it?" he says. "Never mind all that DNA bollocks. Anything that looks puzzled and perplexed is the same species, I'm thinking."  

"That's good thinking, son," I say, as he and I rise to leave, headed respectively for an art school lecture and a meeting on molecular biology at the University.

"So was this science or were you making shit up again?" he says.

"What do you think?" I say.

"Sounded like science to me."

"There you go, then. Trust your instinct."

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Guys on bikes

"Most cyclists aren't cyclists," my son tells me, as I'm driving him to his Tai Chi session, near Byres Road. "They're just guys on bikes."

Focused on a couple of kids on the pavement, who look like they could dive into the road, my brain is fuzzy about what he's just told me, while feeling it's the kind of remark he has always enjoyed - a blend of paradox and his own sideways slant on the world.

"Have you any idea what you're talking about?" I ask, but instead of answering he starts pointing people out and classifying them as cyclists or guys on bikes. 

"It's just whether they're wearing a helmet?" I venture, after studying a few. 

"Nah, there's more to it than that," he says. "It's a culture thing. It's how seriously they're into it all."

"Have you noticed how selfish cyclists are?" I say. "The worst are those clowns that pelt along pavements to avoid traffic and don't give a toss about the pedestrians they mow down."

"I've never seen that," he says. "And I walk everywhere."

"I get it all the time."

"How many?"

"Three - once just yesterday."

"In sixty years?" he says. "They are at it all the time, then."

"They are. And every Sunday they're out on the winding, country roads down our way, driving six abreast at ten miles an hour with a queue of forty cars behind them. Selfish bastards. I'd melt down their bikes and make them buy cars." 

"You're starting to sound like a Daily Mail reader," he says. "How do you feel about immigrants, homosexual marriage and hoodie scum?"

"I love them," I say. "It's just cyclists I can't stand. Good thing is Nature has a way of punishing those who flout her Laws."

"Turn here into Creswell Street," he tells me. "Nature's Laws? Now you sound like a hippy."

"This is science," I tell him. "The human body isn't designed to be load-bearing at the crotch. There are sensitive parts down there that you press on at your peril. Male cyclists get all kinds of problems with their equipment."

"Like punctures and slipped gears?"

"Like low sperm counts and erectile dysfunction."

"Bugger," he says. 

"Not to mention nodules, furuncles and other 'extratesticular disorders'."

"I wish you hadn't," he says, squirming in his seat. "What causes these extraterrestrial disorders then?"

"Pressure and shock, according to a paper in the Lancet, which found 96% of mountain bikers had scrotal abnormalities." 

"You don't want those," he says.

"Normality of the scrotum is what we aim for," I say. "See this is why your average cyclist hates motorists. He can turn women on with his tight, lycra-encased arse, but that's all he can do. His wife is perennially unsatisfied so she's having passionate affairs with guys who keep their scrotums healthy by sitting on soft, comfy seats in cars. All that makes him a borderline psycho." 

"And this is all in that Lancet paper, is it?" he says

"I'm reading between the lines now."

"I thought you scientists chappies were supposed to stick to evidence and not make shit up," he says.

"Yeah but I'm a writer too. We have to make shit up."

"That's us here," he says. "Pull up outside the church. Hey, look at that one - cyclist or guy on a bike?"

"He's got a pointy helmet," I say. "So I'm guessing cyclist." 

"But he's wearing fancy shoes and carrying a newspaper and he just smiled at those kids," he says. All that makes him a borderline cyclist."

"Very good," I say. "You do know puns are the lowest form of wit?"

"Sorry I spoke," he says. "Don't get cranky. Gimme a bell next time you're in town.

"On yer bike," I tell him.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother's Day with whistles

"Did you see a woman caught TB from her kitten?" my sister says, as she bustles around the kitchen, rustling up breakfast, the day after she'd flown back from Tenerife.

"How did her kitten get it?" I say.

"A badger bit him," she says.

"Ha!" I say and her cat shoots up from my feet and hurtles through to the living-room. I keep forgetting what a nervous nelly he is and I shouldn't, because I've been looking after him for a week while sis has been sunning herself, way down south. 

"You're only back five minutes and you've been at the Daily Mail already," I say.

"There's a lot of good reading in the Daily Mail," she says. 

"There's a lot of good fertiliser in horseshit," I say. "But you don't want it in the house with you."

"You wouldn't be talking like that if Mum was here. What would she say?"

"Oh, Douuglas," I imitate the lengthy first syllable and falling intonation she always used to convey her disappointment that all that good training she'd given me as a boy had failed to stick, and I was talking uncouth rubbish again.

"Exactly," sis tells me, with a smile. "And this is still her kitchen, so less of it please."

"Point is you should be asking questions, not just parroting stuff people tell you," I say. "Stories often have an agenda and that one's obvious."

"I wasn't parroting stuff," she says, with the tone that's told me to back off since we were kids together. "Where would you like this?" she adds, hovering over me with a heaped frying-pan of eggs, mushrooms and veggie sausages. 

"On the plate?" I suggest and she slaps it there with two quick scoops of a fish slice, then sits down opposite. 

"I'll let you off because you've been looking after my old cat all week," she says, stroking the little bugger, who has padded cautiously back, given me a body swerve and climbed up on her knee. "He seems fine."

"He wasn't eating much the first few days," I tell her. "Seemed listless so I was worried. He perked up after I set the kitchen on fire."

"You didn't?" she says, looking round in alarm.

"Not the whole of it," I say. "Just the grill when I was toasting sugary French bread. Smoke and flames erupted and he came diving through to tell me. Been perky ever since. The adrenalin I guess."

She tickles him behind the ear, while studying the little bunch of daffodils on the window-sill that burst into bloom yesterday, and I know what she's thinking. 

"This was Mum's favourite time of year," she says. "She loved spring flowers. Like a patch of sunshine in the house, she'd say."

"She loved the cat too," I tell her. "Used to sit stroking him on her knee, like you're doing now. Then you'd come into the room and he'd jump down to greet you and a wee shadow would cross her face. She liked to think he was her cat."

"He was her cat," sis says and looks away. "We're going to have to scatter her ashes this year, you know. Hers and Dad's. In that field up the Skares road where he lived as a boy."

"We will," I say. "It's what they both wanted, so we'll force ourselves. What was the most interesting thing you did on your holiday?"

"We took a boat trip to an island called La Gomera, which has deep ravines and no roads until the 1950s," she says. "So the natives invented a way of communicating based on whistling, which carries across country for miles. They gave us a demonstration and it was amazing. 

"Let me show you," she says, pressing a button on her mobile that starts a recording.

"That's fantastic," I say, having listened to several seconds of animated whistles. "But it only proves you can't believe everything people tell you, like I've been saying. This is clearly a story made up for gullible tourists and I'll tell you why. That was not the whistling natives of La Gomera. That's bollocks.

"It was Tiny Clanger talking to the Soup Dragon. Which I keep on my mobile because it makes me laugh. Let me show you," I say, pressing a button that starts a recording.

She listens, looks at me sadly, then shakes her head.

"Oh, Douuglas," she says.


More
The truth about the whistling language of La Gomera.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Cool science


"Have you noticed how women always comment on the temperature when they enter a room?" I ask Rachel, as we're sat in the physics library at Glasgow University, trying to make progress on our educational project, while ventilator fans in the wall blast out cool air. 

"No," she says.

"That's because unlike me you are not a trained observer," I tell her.

"You've got your jumper on inside out and are wearing odd socks," she says. "I have a PhD in nuclear physics. Which makes me the trained observer, I believe. We don't just make stuff up."

"Quarks, gluons, colour, strangeness and charm?" I say. "Course you make it up and I'll tell you how I know. You can't buy any of that stuff on eBay. So it doesn't exist."

"For once there's a tiny particle of sense in your wittering," she says.

"There is?" I say.

"You're like a machine-gunner on a firing-range having an epileptic fit while standing on a turntable," she says. "One bullet in a million hits the target. Women do feel temperature differently."

"Is that because they're robots planted on Earth by aliens running experiments on pain and suffering?" I say.

"No it's because they have extra insulation," she says. "So their core temperature stays high at the expense of their extremities. They are also smaller on average so they lose heat faster. Pygmy shrews have the same problem."

"But don't complain about it nearly as much."

"They have to eat every four hours or die of cold," she says. "Elephants have the opposite problem. They struggle to keep cool. It's why they have big ears."

"I thought that was because Noddy wouldn't pay the ransom," I say, and she ignores me again. 

"Small objects have more surface area for their size than large ones," she says. "It's why you shouldn't eat the tasty little chips at the bottom of the bag. More surface means more grease for the same potato." 

"I heard frogs freeze solid in winter," I say, keen to keep her distracted from my progress on the forty actions she gave me last week, only three of which I've done. "Is that true?"

"The North American wood frog does," she says. "Completely solid. Then when the thaw comes, its little heart starts beating again and it gives itself a shake."

"And wanders off to look for female frogs," I say. "Who go 'It's bloody cold around here. Why can't you do something about it - call yourself a frog?'"


"I have no knowledge of the conversational habits of amphibians," she says, turning to look through the tall bay window behind us. 

"See that building up the grassy slope?" she says. "A man called William Thompson laid the foundations of the science of heat and energy when he lived there. He was the first scientist to be given a peerage for his work - Lord Kelvin."

"I remember studying heat and energy when I was young," I tell her. "We had a Three Laws of Thermodynamics for dummies that went like this:

1. You can't win. You can only break even.
2. You can break even only at absolute zero.
3. You can't reach absolute zero."

She nods. "Basically you can never make a perpetual motion machine," she says. "But things work better the colder they get."

"Except women," I say.

"Except women," she says, standing up and reaching for her jacket. "It's bloody freezing in here. Let's go get a coffee."



More science:

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Third year they go nuts

"I don't want you writing about my girlfriend," my son tells me, as we're sat in the bay window of his old friend Matt's spacious, south-facing flat, overlooking the bowling club.

"I haven't," I tell him. "I mentioned she lives in Carlisle, she's called Linda and she's a musician. That's it. I know nothing about your girlfriend. I imagine she's smart, decent, creative and good-looking, because you're all of those. But I have no idea. I've never seen her."

"Well I've had complaints," he tells me. "Personally I wouldn't know what you write because I don't read it."

"Well I do," Matt says "I'm his biggest fan and what he's saying is true."

"You want to know why I never read it?" my son says.

"No," I tell him.

"You quote me out of context."

"People always say that about journalists," I tell him. "But the context is invariably a long, rambling, tedious pile of horseshit that no one would read. We select the most interesting parts and make people sound intelligent. You should be thanking us. But you're missing a more important point. You want to know what that is?"

"No," he tells me.

"What I do these days is not journalism. It's imaginative writing. It's art. I make stuff up, same as you. My medium is words where yours is paint, clay and planks of fungus-infested wood. I expected other people to confuse art and reality, but I figured you for smarter than that. 

"The son in the blog is not you. The son's girlfriend is not your girlfriend. Susan is not my girlfriend. The narrator is not me. He's an idiot for heaven's sake. How could that be me?"

The two of them study their tea with surprising interest, so I push the point. "He's the kind of guy that would stick a list of instructions to himself on the bathroom mirror, starting "Get up. Brush teeth. Go downstairs."

"My mother says you did that when we lived in Derby," he says.

"Bad example," I say. "He's the kind of guy that uses a satnav to get to the village shop and back."

"I've seen you do that," he says.

"Bad example again," I say. "He's the kind of guy ... Look just take it from me the narrator is an idiot. I write him that way so no one could confuse him with me, or anyone in the blog with real people. Reality is reality. Art is art."

"Speaking of art," Matt says, passing me his mobile phone, showing an image of a blonde female. "What do you think of her?"

"Pretty," I say.

"Then there's her and her," he says, touching the screen to display an attractive brunette then another blonde.

"You know these women?" I ask. 

"Met them online," he says. "It's this mobile site called Tinder that hooks you up with women in the neighborhood. Been out with five in the past week."

"Listen, I don't want to sound like an old fogey," I say. 

"Stop talking then," my son says.

"But at your age shouldn't you have a more mature attitude to women? You've been doing casual and uninvolved all your life."

"You got me wrong, chief," Matt says. "I want a serious relationship. But the longest I've managed is three years. There's a pattern. First year great. Second year the arguments start. Third year they go nuts and start fighting about everything and I tell them to beat it. I've a theory about women."

"We've all got one of those," I say. "Mine is that they're robots planted on Earth by aliens running experiments on pain and suffering." 

"Mine is that they're all mental," Matt says. "They can hide it for a while, some even a year or two. But sooner or later out it comes."

"Reminds me of a PG Wodehouse line," I say. "'It's no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.'"

"Yeah, that's it exactly," Matt says. "Sooner or later, out pops the meat cleaver and the throbbing veins in the head."

"You been quiet a while," I say to my son, who's cradling his mug in his hands and staring out the window at white-shirted bowlers on the sunlit lawn below. "What's your theory about women? Aliens, parallel evolution, incurably insane?"

"Well," he says, lowering his mug to the table. "Obviously I don't have as much experience as you two masterminds. But it seems to me that ...."

"What?" Matt says. "Spit it out."

"Women are people," my son says, and Matt and I stare at each other blankly for a moment.  

"Yeah, good one!" Matt laughs and slaps him on the back. "You going to write all this up for your blog, chief?" he says, standing up and starting to clear the table.

"Course not," I tell him. "Wouldn't be fiction if I did."