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Thursday, 9 November 2017

The physics of big girls

We all have our feminine side, science tells us. Even women, although theirs is often harder to find.

My own was obvious from an early age, when I used to pick wild flowers and take them home to my mum. She loved them. The bigger boys I met on the way home were less impressed. I'm not a fast learner, but eventually even I managed to associate the blossoms in my hand with the lumps on my face, and stayed away from the flowers.

I went further and tried to suppress my whole feminine side. But you know when you push down on a bubble in an omelette, it just pops up somewhere else? I started dressing differently to other boys and soon I was getting gigs as a male model. That's a photo of me on the catwalk in my early twenties.

Soon though I had to choose between fashion and physics and it wasn't hard. You can reconnect with your girly side at any age, but if you don't stuff tensors into your brain when it's young and vibrant, they just won't stick.

Females are in the minority in physics, but physicists are the least sexist people I know. They're more interested in brains than body parts, so my colleagues wouldn't have batted an eyelid, I'm sure, if my feminine side had come out to play with them. But I kinda lost touch with her, over the years, even cracking jokes about her absence.

"I got in touch with my feminine side once," I'd say. "But she didn't like me. Last I heard she was shacked up with a spot-welder in Cowdenbeath."

It made a few folk laugh but it wasn't true. She was still in there, beavering away, if you'll pardon the expression. And in recent years she's been re-asserting herself. I know this because people have been breaking off in the middle of a chat with me to say stuff like, "Don't be such a big girl, Douglas".

I'm thinking this is one of those perspective-dependent epithet situations: I'm assertive. You're pushy. He's a grizzly bear. I'm curvy. You're buxom. She's a hippopotamus. I'm sensitive. You're touchy. He's a big girl.

Maybe I am sensitive, but so were Keats and Shelley and no one accused them of being big girls. Why? Because Keats and Shelley wrote romantic poetry and were young and handsome, that's why. If you have smouldering good looks then it's fine to have a sensitive side. But if your face looks like it's gone well past smouldering and burst into flames, which someone then beat out with an empty fire extinguisher, they call you a big girl. That's my experience anyway.

So by now you're thinking, where's the science? Well, I'll tell you. I took a test recently to see how much of my feminine side had survived, and it was reassuring. Turns out I'm 67% feminine and 78% masculine, which is well above average on both scores. (They don't add to 100%, as you'd expect, because each is a separate percentage.)

Some of my friends have taken the test, but I'd like to encourage all my readers to do so, and post the result in the comments below or on Facebook.

Come on feminine sides. I bet you can't beat mine.

There will be prizes.

Gender role test

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Tell me if I'm close

The subject has popped into just about every conversation I've been having this week, so there's no getting away from it, I'm afraid. Much as I'd rather talk to you about music, physics or Al's bulging broccoli, I'm going to have to touch briefly on the subject of sex.

Please don't be alarmed. We are all scientists here. There's no way we're going to toss off any cheap double entendres. We know that's not why you come here. 

So I'm sat in the Drake in Woodlands Road, having a friendly half pint and sharing haloumi and asparagus fritters, for god's sake, with my friend Lucas, who's been doing some fancy software development for us, when he makes a remark that baffles me for a moment, before I realise that he's jumped to a conclusion that I guess is pretty widespread.

I've been telling him about the time I officially became a Buddhist, more or less accidentally, when I attended a seminar in Strasbourg, a couple of years ago, conducted by the Dalai Lama. At the end of the two-day event, spoken in Tibetan, but translated into earphone English, the audience were invited to take five Buddhist vows. 

Essentially the same in all branches of Buddhism, these precepts are to abstain from harming living things, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. They're pretty much how I live my life and number one, in particular, is what first drew me to Buddhism. So I went ahead and vowed. 

But it isn't the first precept that has caught Lucas's attention. "The sex part must be easy for you nowadays," he comments and I'm puzzled for a moment before the penny drops.

"Ah, you mean at my age?" 

"Well, you are a lot older than me. And even I am starting to find it tiresome. All that thrusting is hard work, don't you think?"

At this point he tries to match the action to the words, as far as can be done from a seated position with a forkful of fancy cheese on its way to your face, and I think I see the problem.

"Don't stab yourself in the eye," I say. "But show me that again please." 

He does so, confirming my suspicions. "You're doing it wrong," I tell him. "That looks like you're trying to shake cake crumbs out of your lap. What you should be doing is this."

I demonstrate, he continues with his version and Rachel returns from the toilet and raises a manicured eyebrow. "Would you guys like to be alone?" she says and I think quickly.

"Lucas was showing me how to dance the Watusi," I say and she shakes her head.

"That's not the Watusi," she says. "That's the Bugaloo. The Watusi goes like this."

Right about now the boss man at the Drake, a hipster with gelled hair and a ginger beard, decides we've crossed a line and comes out from behind the bar. "I have no idea what you three are doing," he says. "But take it outside. You're frightening my dog."

"On the subject of sex," Lucas says, when we're out on the pavement with wisps of water vapour rising from the road in bright afternoon sunshine. "Did you see the latest news? Fifty percent of men don't know where the vagina is."

I ponder this for a moment. "That's tabloid nonsense," I tell him. "Humans would have gone extinct long since, if it was true. The name isn't the object. What's clearly happened is a bunch of guys have failed to match labels and body parts on a diagram of the female reproductive system. Which isn't surprising because it's more complicated than the London underground."

"You're right of course," Lucas says. "Amazes me how babies find their way out, when I get lost going from Waterloo to King's Cross. There's no way 50% of men can't find a vagina in real life. Assuming they can find a woman, of course."

"I'm not so sure," Rachel says. "At least 50% of men can't find the toilet bowl when they're having a pee." 

She wanders off along Woodlands Road towards her flat, but can't resist a parting shot over her shoulder. "And I don't think either of you two could find your bum with both hands," she says.

Lucas looks at me. I look at Lucas

"She's right," he says. 

"She always is," I tell him.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Road rage

A silver, stiletto-heeled shoe, looking forlorn on the low wall protecting the entrance to Stewart Street Police Station, hints at a night out that started in smiles, but went south. I briefly wonder if its owner is still banged up in the cells or has hirpled home, oblivious of her loss, on just one shoe.

Once inside I rapidly lose interest in Cinderella's fate, as two young police officers take a firm grip on my arms, while making soothing sounds that fail to reassure me. "It's just procedure for the closed circuit TV, sir. No need to be alarmed." 

Leading me to a narrow, windowless interview room, they gesture to a hard chair behind a wooden table and sit down opposite me, blocking the only exit. The thought that I might not be going home today flits across my frontal lobes and I shove it away. 

My churchgoing grandmother, when I was a boy, always assured me that "the truth shall make you free", and for many years I believed her. Doubts crept in when I took the sole rap several times for teenage group misdemeanours. But on the occasion about which I'm being questioned today I had acted alone and, having just signed away my right to a lawyer, possess only the truth on my side. I'm thinking maybe I should have gone with the lawyer. 

At the end of the interview, which takes about half an hour, giving me plenty of time to tell my story, the young constable who's been asking the questions, while his colleague writes my answers laboriously in his notebook, studies me for a moment and reaches a decision. "Having considered your answers to my questions, sir, and your explanation of what happened, I'm afraid I have to charge you with the offence of acting in such a way as to cause fear and alarm to another road user."

So much for the truth shall make you free, Gran. But as the constable explains what happens next, I realise with relief that I won't be joining last night's revelers in the cells, because it will be months before my case comes up before the Sheriff. 

Back home, I ponder this fear and alarm I'm accused of causing. A quick internet search suggests it's a catch-all used by the police to cover a wide variety of offences, including spraying tomato sauce around a kitchen, behaving aggressively with a black pudding, and distracting drivers by rambling naked in Midlothian.

My own offence seems trivial in comparison. All I'd done was get out of my car at the lights, approach the twatmobile behind me and say to the driver, "You shouldn't accelerate when someone's overtaking you, unless you're trying to kill them," before returning to my car and driving away. Admittedly I had tried to open his door so that he could hear me better, and he'd slammed it shut and locked it. Granted, he did look somewhat alarmed. 

But why? If I was a fit-looking man in my thirties, driving a big, black Range Rover, would a grey-haired pensioner coming to talk to me cause me fear and alarm? I don't think so. There were no threats. I was fully clothed at the time. My hands were at my sides. They did not contain a black pudding. 

I can think of plenty of things that would cause fear and alarm to me. A triangular fin approaching fast in the sea. An email from my ex-wife. Two police officers at my front door. The opening line "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman" from a pub-singer with lank, black hair and a guitarI have never yet heard the end of that most horrific of all country songs, because my ears fill with blood at the first few notes of its maudlin mimicry of real music. Fearful and alarming, for sure.

But a retired teacher coming to talk to me? Nah. Not a chance.

So what is the moral of this story? Mind your own business? Don't get out of your car? Never object to dangerous behaviour by other people? I don't think so. Let me tell you about Immanual Kant. 

Stop. Come back. It'll be quick and painless, I promise.

Kant's categorical imperative is the ethical principle I live by and it goes like this: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

So if you're wondering if  something is the right thing to do, imagine a world where everyone did it. If you don't like that world then the action is unethical. If you do like it, then you should take the action. It's your duty. Even if it's difficult. Laws are made by politicians, who can be venal and self-serving. The categorical imperative tells you what's right and wrong beyond human laws.

So if a similar situation happens again, will I point out the error of his ways to a dickless driver whose ego is so fragile that when overtaken by a scruffy old banger he accelerates, putting the lives of the occupants of three cars, including his own, in serious peril?

The categorical imperative says I must, because if everyone did then some of these numbnuts would feel the social pressure and change their behaviour, and lives would be saved.

On the other hand I now possess a little pink slip called a Recorded Police Warning, the nice constable, on considering my story and consulting his superior, having chosen this paper rap on the knuckles, rather than sending me to the big bad sheriff. 

And here's the problem. My pink slip says no further action will be taken, but the incident will be kept on file for two years during which, should I re-offend in a similar fashion, it can be dragged up and counted against me.

So what if I encounter another boneheaded driver, out there on the highways? Will I do what the nice policeman insists and stay in my car? Or will I point out the error of his ways, knowing that his fear and alarm in the present could save somebody's life in the future? I think I know the answer but I am not 100% certain. And that worries me. I am way too old to start disappointing myself now.

Sometimes it's hard to be a man.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

It's not drupey

My sister is a keen student of nature, so on returning from a long walk, looking flushed and healthy, she starts telling me about everything she's seen in the trees, flowers and fields, not far from the house we both grew up in. My attention wanders after a while, so I ask a question intended to demonstrate my interest that has exactly the opposite effect.

"I told you that already," she says, with some asperity and I have to admit it's a refrain I'm hearing from lots of people these days. First signs of a failing memory, perhaps. But I have a better theory. My brain has learned to filter key ideas from conversational noise.

"You can't expect me to register every word you say," I explain, while carelessly turning to look out the window at the dreich, autumnal morning. "A lot of it is stream of consciousness dr ..."

A slight alteration of the atmosphere in the room behind me, imperceptible to anyone less sensitive than myself, stops my mouth from landing the rest of me in a deep, dark hole with alligators in it. As it is, I'm hanging over the pit by my fingertips.

"What?" my sister hisses, which isn't easy with a word that has no sibilants. 

"Stream of consciousness? You cheeky bugger!" 

"Highly regarded literary device," I back-pedal furiously. "Joyce and Faulkner were exponents. Also Virginia Woolf, although some say 'interior monologue' is a better term for most of her work."

"Really?" Helen addresses my back, while my front hunkers down in fear and alarm. "And what about dr...? That was going to be dross, wasn't it? Or even drivel!"

"Certainly not," I say. "Neither of those."

"What was it then?" she says. "I can't think of any other words."

"It could have been loads of them," I tell her. "There are hundreds of words in English that start with 'dr...': Dragons. Dreadlocks. Dragonflies. Dromedaries. Drumsticks. Drupaceous."

"There's no such word as drupaceous," she interrupts. 

"There is," I tell her with relief, as the way out of the hole reveals itself to me in all its elegant perfection. As a poet Helen is fascinated by words. 

"What does it mean then?" she says.

"Not having all the properties of a drupe, but very close," I say, and she raises an imperious eyebrow so I hurry on. "A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a hard stone surrounding a seed."

"Like peaches and plums?" she says.

"Also nectarines, apricots, cherries and olives," I say. "And almonds."

"Almonds are nuts," she says.

"Technically no," I tell her. "They're the seeds of a drupe. Walnuts, pecans and pistachio nuts aren't nuts either. Some people say they're drupes. Others spot small differences and say they're ..."

"Drupaceous," she says.

"Correct. Not having all the properties of a drupe, but very close." 

"Hmm," she says. "That was an interesting but deviously irrelevant diversion. You still haven't come up with a plausible word that starts with dr and isn't drivel or something equally offensive."

"Yes I have," I tell her. "I was going to say 'stream of consciousness drupaciousness'." 

"No you weren't," she says. "Because that is drivel."

"It's a metaphor," I tell her. "It's the quality of having flesh on the outside, then a hard stone you have to penetrate to get to the seed inside - that kernel of truth, interest and originality in all your conversation." 

give her my frank, manly expression that oozes sincerity. She doesn't buy it. Never has, come to think of it.

"If I wasn't too refined and feminine," she says, raising her right leg and swinging the sturdy hiking boot on the end of it in a menacing manner, "I would show you the best way to penetrate a hard stone to get to the seed inside."

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hello darkness my old friend

You wouldn't expect Space to have a smell would you? Because there's nothing much there. That's kinda why it's called Space, isn't it? 

Well you'd be wrong. Space smells burnt. (At least it does in our neck of the woods. Elsewhere it smells of raspberries and rum, but that's another story.) 

We know about the burnt smell of Space because astronauts carry it back to the International Space Station on their spacesuits, when they've been outside. ”The best description I can come up with is metallic,” said Don Pettit. “It reminded me of pleasant, sweet-smelling welding fumes.”

To Alexander Gerst it had a combination of fragrances, “namely walnuts and the brake pads of a motorbike.” 

So what has the smell of Space to do with that photo of my younger son and myself at his Glasgow School of Art degree show, where his main exhibit was that elegant urn, painstakingly assembled from the walls of the room, which he'd pulled down and cut up into little bricks?

“Deconstructing GSA” he'd called it and I'd asked him what it all meant. I should have known better, his standard answer to “What does it mean?” being “It doesn't mean anything. It's art.”

After four years of being asked the question, his response has become dismissively minimalist. It's not easy to convey the sound he makes through the written word, but allow me to try. 

Stand up, shrug your shoulders, as he's doing in the photo, and say out loud “I don't know”. Now keep repeating the sentence, gradually removing all consonants, while retaining the vocalised intonation. 

What you're left with, if you do it right, is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. The substance has gone but the sense remains. It sounds like 'Ah-u-oh', and the vocalisation is roughly re-mi-do (D-E-C).

Got it? Now let's join up the dots. My smart son kept telling me, all the time he was at Art School, that science and art are far more similar than they seem. They are, he believes, two roads to the same distant destination.  

I think I now agree with him. He as an artist and I as a scientist are both trying to comprehend the strange universe our mums shoved us out into, without handbook or roadmap, and it is far from easy. 

Some scientists suffer from an ossified certainty. They have acquired so much knowledge and authority that they've come to equate these with understanding. The best scientists know that's nonsense.   

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there,” said Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and a man not known for his modesty.

The correct response of any scientist or artist to the ineffably weird world we inhabit is not dogmatic conviction. It's the sound my son makes when I ask him what it means.

Space has a smell. It also has a sound. “Ah-u-oh” is, I believe, one of the fundamental sounds of the universe. It's the sound of space. 

It's the sound of art.

It's the sound of science.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Question of time

When workload is heavy, Friendly Encounters become less frequent. So we've enlisted experienced reporters to fill the gaps with short, topical news stories. (But remember what Walt Whitman said: "Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.")

Reports that David Dimbleby has turned into a hot-air balloon have been greatly exaggerated, say experts.

"He's not mature enough," said Dr Turnovah Newleaf, a biologist at Sussex University. "Metamorphosis into a hot-air balloon is part of the life-cycle of the Dimblebys. But David hasn't reached that stage yet."

His father Richard Dimbleby did his best work after the change, she added. "He used to float above Royal Weddings emitting a sonorous, incomprehensible rumble. It was very soothing."

Dr Phil McCracken, a Glasgow psychiatrist, said: "Close study by scientists resulted in the discovery of Dimbleby Waves. These led to a breakthrough in the treatment of mental disorders, when a machine was invented that could create the waves electronically."

Dimbleby Waves make humans feel secure, said Dr McCracken. "They bypass the bullshit deflectors in our brains. So hospitals use the machines to pacify disturbed patients who believe Britain is run by psychopaths."

Although David has not yet metamorphosed, the change is inevitable, said Dr Newleaf. "You might as well try to stop a caterpillar becoming a butterfly as a Dimbleby turning into a hot-air balloon. 

"It's his destiny."

A good deal of plain gibberish

  A MacDog by Will Brenner.
"You have to be nice to them," I try to tell my son, as he curses his computer for the tenth time in an hour. But he's not listening. Essay writing is always fraught at Blane Mansions, and this term it's worse than usual because the subject is postmodernism, which is quite frankly bollocks.

Here's what Noam Chomsky had to say on the subject. "A lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts, argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial or false, and a good deal of plain gibberish."

Chomsky knew a thing or two. But. 

And it's a big but.

Given an essay assignment on postmodernism you have to convince yourself, for the couple of weeks it takes to research and write, that these people are among the most profound philosophers on the planet. You have to engage with their arguments, such as they are. And you have to be especially nice to your computer. 

"Because it doesn't like postmodernism any more than you do," I tell my son. "So it's suffering too. If you want your computer to perform well, you have to treat it like ....."

"A woman?" he scoffs. "You're going to say I have to treat my computer like a woman, aren't you? That's the kind of shit you ageing hippies always say."

"I am not now and never have been a hippy," I say. "No I wasn't, unless you want it to interrupt you every five minutes to ask if you've put the dustbins out. To get your computer to behave, you have to treat it like a well-loved pet - like Katy here."

Young, smart, hyperactive, Katy is a large Alsatian who is still trying to decide if I'm a member of her pack or a dangerous outsider. She is convinced the answer is hidden somewhere in my groin.

"Gerrof," I tell her and she throws me a look of reproach from big dark eyes, turns her back on me and flops on the floor. 

"See what I mean," I tell my son. "You and Linda get the best out of Katy because you're consistently kind with her, but firm when you need to be. You react to your computer, on the other hand, the way I just reacted to Katy, and with the same result. It sulks.

"Let me tell you something," he says, having clearly had enough motivation for one morning. "When I'm trying to work at a computer I spend a fifth of my time working and all of the rest of the time trying to make the little plastic turd DO WHAT I TELL IT TO DO! 

"It's a good thing Steve Jobs is dead or I would feel compelled to take all of the hours I've spent swearing at this piece of shit Mac and use that time rowing to California purely so I could KICK HIM UP HIS CALIFORNIAN ARSEHOLE!"

He stops for breath and looks around. "Where is my computer, by the way?"

"Long gone," I tell him. "Shot out the front door in the middle of your rant. You won't see it again, I'm guessing. It's run away to join one of the bands of feral computers that have been rejected by humans and now haunt the echoing halls of skyscrapers, airports and mainline railway stations, stealing electrons and playing games with each other."

"Computer games?" he says.

"Nah. That's work to a computer. Football."

He grins. "Well if that isn't post fucking modern I don't know what is. Fancy a cup of tea?"