an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

towards James Clerk Maxwell 6: Newton’s universal law of gravitation and G

leave a comment »

Newton’s law of gravity goes like this:

{\displaystyle F=G{\frac {m_{1}m_{2}}{r^{2}}},}

where F is the force of gravitational attraction, G is the constant of proportionality or gravitational constant, m is an entity, particle or object with a particular mass, and r is the distance between the centres of mass of the two entities, particles or objects.

What’s the relation between all this and Maxwell’s electromagnetic work? Good question – to me, it’s about putting physics on a mathematical footing. Newton set us on this path more than anyone. The task I’ve set myself is to understand all this from the beginning, with little or no mathematical expertise.

The law of gravity, in its un-mathematical form, says that every object of mass attracts every other massive object with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

It seems often to be put about that Newton was revolutionary because he was the first to wonder why objects fell to the ground. This is unlikely, and Newton wasn’t the first to infer an inverse square law in relation to such falling. Two Italian experimenters, Francesco Grimaldi and Giovanni Riccioli, investigated the free fall (where no force acts besides gravity) of objects between 1640 and 1650, and noted that the distance of the fall was proportional to the time taken. Galileo had previously conducted free fall experiments and found that objects fell with uniform acceleration – an acceleration that is proportional to the square of the elapsed time. Nor was he the first to find a time-squared relationship. The point of all this is that science doesn’t proceed via revolutions proceeding from one brilliant person (which shouldn’t diminish Galileo or Newton’s genius). The more you find out about it, the more incremental and fascinatingly collaborative and confirmative over time it is.

Galileo used the geometry of his time to present his time squared law, but algebraic notation, invented principally by Descartes, superseded this approach in the seventeenth century.

What about the gravitational constant? This appears to be a long and complicated mathematical story. I think it tries to answer the question – why do objects fall to Earth at such and such a rate of acceleration? But I’m not sure. The rate of acceleration would have been easy enough to measure – it’s approximately 9.8 m/sec2. This rate would appear to be caused by the mass of the Earth. The Moon has a fraction of Earth’s mass, and I believe the gravitational force it exerts is approximately one sixth that of Earth. It has been measured as 1.62 m/sec² (for Mars it’s 3.71).

It’s frustratingly difficult to get an explanation online of what the gravitational constant (G) is or really means – without very quickly getting into complex (for me) mathematics. Tantalisingly, Wikipedia tells us that the aforementioned Grimaldi and Riccioli ‘made [an attempted] calculation of the gravitational constant by recording the oscillations of a pendulum’, which means nothing to me. Clearly though, there must be some relationship between G and the mass of the Earth, though how this can be ascertained via pendulums is beyond me. Anyway, on with the struggle.

We do have a number for G, or ‘Big G’, as it’s called (explanation to come), and it’s a very very small number, indicating that, considering that the multiplied masses divided by the square of the distance between them then get multiplied by G, gravitation is mostly a very small force, and only comes into play when we’re talking about Big Stuff, like stars and planets, and presumably whole galaxies. Anyway here’s the actual number:

G = 0.0000000000667408, or 6.67408 × 10-11

I got the number from this useful video, though of course it’s easily available on the net. Now, my guess is that this ‘Big G’ is specific to the mass of the Earth, whereas small g is variable depending on which mass you’re referring to. In other words, G is one of the set of numbers in g. We’ll see if that’s true.

Now, looking again at the original equation, F stands for force, measured in newtons, m for mass, measured in kilograms, and and r for distance in metres (these are the SI units for mass and distance). The above-mentioned video ‘explains’ that the newtons on one side of the equation are not equivalent to the metres and kilograms squared on the other side, and G is introduced to somehow get newtons onto both sides of the equation. This has thrown me into confusion again. The video goes on to explain how G was used by Einstein in relativity and by Max Planck to calculate the Planck length (the smallest possible measure of length). Eek, I’m hoping I’m just experiencing the storm before the calm of comprehension.

So, to persist. This G value above isn’t, and apparently cannot be, precise. That number is ‘the average of the upper and lower limit’, so it has an uncertainty of plus or minus 0.00031 x 10-11, which is apparently a seriously high level of uncertainty for physicists. The reason for this uncertainty, apparently, is that gravitational attraction is everywhere, existing between every particle of mass, so there’s a signal/noise problem in trying to isolate any two particles from all the others. It also can’t be calculated precisely through indirect relation to the other forces (electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force), because no relationship, or compatibility, has been found between gravity and those other three forces.

The video ends frustratingly, but providing me with a touch of enlightenment. G is described as a ‘fundamental value’, which means we don’t know why it has the value it does. It is just a value ‘found experimentally’. This at least tells me it has nothing to do with the mass of the Earth, and I was quite wrong about Big G and small g – it’s the other way round, which makes sense, Big G being the universal gravitational constant, small g pertaining to the Earth’s gravitational force-field.

Newton himself didn’t try to measure G, but this quote from Wikipedia is sort of informative:

In the Principia, Newton considered the possibility of measuring gravity’s strength by measuring the deflection of a pendulum in the vicinity of a large hill, but thought that the effect would be too small to be measurable. Nevertheless, he estimated the order of magnitude of the constant when he surmised that “the mean density of the earth might be five or six times as great as the density of water”

Pendulums again. I don’t quite get it, but the reference to the density of the Earth, which of course relates to its mass, means that the mass of the Earth comes back into question when considering this constant. The struggle continues.

I’ll finish by considering a famous experiment conducted in 1798 by arguably the most eccentric scientist in history, the brilliant Henry Cavendish (hugely admired, by the way, by Maxwell). I’m hoping it will further enlighten me. For Cavendish’s eccentricities, go to any online biography, but I’ll just focus here on the experiment. First, here’s a simplification of Newton’s law: F = GMm/R2, in which M is the larger mass (e.g. the Earth), and m the smaller mass, e.g a person. What Cavendish was trying to ascertain was nothing less than the mass and density of the Earth. In doing so, he came very close – within 1% – of the value for G. Essentially, all that has followed are minor adjustments to that value.

The essential item in Cavendish’s experiment was a torsion balance, a wooden bar suspended horizontally at its centre by a wire or length of fibre. The experimental design was that of a colleague, John Michell, who died before carrying out the experiment. Two small lead balls were suspended, one from each end of the bar. Two larger lead balls were suspended separately at a specific distance – about 23cms – from the smaller balls. The idea was to measure the faint gravitational attraction between the smaller balls and the larger ones.

the ‘simple’ Michell/Cavendish device for measuring the mass/density of the Earth – Science!

Wikipedia does a far better job than I could in explaining the process:

The two large balls were positioned on alternate sides of the horizontal wooden arm of the balance. Their mutual attraction to the small balls caused the arm to rotate, twisting the wire supporting the arm. The arm stopped rotating when it reached an angle where the twisting force of the wire balanced the combined gravitational force of attraction between the large and small lead spheres. By measuring the angle of the rod and knowing the twisting force (torque) of the wire for a given angle, Cavendish was able to determine the force between the pairs of masses. Since the gravitational force of the Earth on the small ball could be measured directly by weighing it, the ratio of the two forces allowed the density of the Earth to be calculated, using Newton’s law of gravitation.

To fully understand this, I’d have to understand more about torque, and how it’s measured. Clearly this weak interaction is too small to be measured directly – the key is in the torque. Unfortunately I’m still a way from fully comprehending this experiment, and so much else, but I will persist.


Go to youtube for a number of useful videos on the gravitational constant

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2019 at 4:51 pm

Boots on Martian ground – crazy or brave?

leave a comment »

One of the last pics taken on the Moon – December 1972. Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt

Jacinta: Recently we attended a ‘Science in the Pub’ session, in which a group of three or four scientists/academics gives talks with Q&A on a topic of interest to the public. The topic the other day was indeed most topical, dealing with recent findings about the surface of Mars and future ventures to uncover more.

Canto: But we were most intrigued by the Q&A at the end, which was a friendly but passionate dispute about the wisdom of a ‘personned’ voyage to the Mars surface. Two of the speakers argued that we were far from ready, and possibly never would be (together with the ‘isn’t stuffing up one planet for us?’ claim) while the other suggested that we should really ‘go for it’.

Jacinta: Yes, and I was all for the more cautious approach, clapping my hands and nodding my head off at their caveats and their bemusement that such a suicide mission should be taken seriously at this stage…

Canto: And I tended to agree with you, but something the other speaker said really struck me. He compared this wild project to the Apollo mission, so daring and unlikely for its time, yet ultimately successful. And – this really caught my attention – that sixties adventure produced, in proportional terms, more PhDs in physics and engineering, in the USA and elsewhere, than has ever been experienced historically.

Jacinta: Need to fact-check that* but it’s more than plausible. So let’s look more closely at the pros and cons of this crazy idea of boots on Martian ground.

Canto: Okay, first we look at the problem of actually getting there. According to Mars One (a Dutch venture that recently went bankrupt but never mind) it takes about seven months, following the route known as the Hohmann Transfer Orbit. Now, we’ve obviously managed this trip with unpersonned vehicles, but a personned one…

Jacinta: Shit that’s a terrible word, but I suppose if ‘manned’ was once acceptable then ‘personned’ now has to be, politically.

Canto: Grin and bear it. A personned one would presumably have to be bigger and more accommodating in various ways. And of course we’ve never contemplated a return voyage for the Mars rovers…

Jacinta: But we’ve done return trips to the moon. We have the technology. But of course the journey to the moon took – what, a day or two? How are these colonists – a bus load of them perhaps? – going to endure, or survive, a months-long voyage?

Canto: We’ll get to that hopefully. First let’s look at any trip. There’s a period called a launch window, the optimum time for starting off. These periods come around every 26 months, but there are high-energy launch windows and low-energy ones, because the Mars orbit is quite eccentric, the second-most eccentric planetary orbit in the solar system. The low end requires only half the energy of the high end, and the next low-energy launch window comes round in 2033.

Jacinta: But Elon Musk says he’ll be ready to launch a humanned (is that better?) mission by 2024. He must have energy to burn.

Canto: A human mission, that’s settled. Actually Musk made that claim about a 2024 mission here in Adelaide just a few days ago. NASA is apparently keeping quiet on the issue – they’re planning a mission in the 2030s, very sensibly.

Jacinta: Or not, if you feel we’re far from ready.

Canto: Well let’s continue with the problems. The first one is radiation – not only on the planet Mars, but in deep space. We know that on the International Space Station, which is inside the protective magnetic field of the Earth, astronauts are exposed to 10 times the radiation that we have to deal with on the surface. I’m not sure if that means the ship is exposed to that radiation or the people inside it. I don’t know how radiation-proof you can make a spaceship, but I do know that exposure to these massive levels of radiation will increase risks of cancer, central nervous system damage, cardiac and circulatory problems, nausea, cataracts and no doubt much else. Presumably SpaceX is dealing with all this somehow or other. The plans seem to shift a bit, but it’s believed that they’re going to send a rocket out in 2022 (sans humans) – and presumably bring it back, so they can, inter alia, check out radiation levels inside and out.

Jacinta: The BFR, it’s called (Big Falcon Rocket). What about the astronauts that went to the Moon? Apollo 10 orbited the Moon about 30 times – that must’ve made them sick, if not from radiation. Apparently the best way to radiation-proof your ship requires adding mass, which requires using additional fuel on launch, etc.

Canto: The SpaceX launch vehicle is called Super Heavy, and that includes the upper-stage Starship, the part that makes the full trip and back, so presumably they’ve thoroughly planned for radiation effects. I do get the impression that Musk and his team are super-smart super-planners. It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff, as Mars One seems to have been. And they have super-rich backing, I’m sure. Musk has said it’s not unlikely that some will die (just as some first-fleeters no doubt died back in 1788 – but they were only convicts, not cashed up adventurers), but I’m inclined to believe that the percentages will be low.

Jacinta: Humans appear to be more valuable these days, she said cynically.

Canto: The whole world will be watching, much more than in 1788. Anyway, another problem will be isolation. There won’t be a busload of adventurers on the first human trip. Just focusing on the SpaceX venture, they’ve got an ambitious plan to have something like a city on Mars by 2050. Again, this starts to remind me of the first fleet, and subsequent fleets. Think of Port Jackson in 1788, then think of Sydney Town thirty-something years later, with a population of 12-15 thousand. Hazardous voyages of many months’ duration, with many outbreaks of disease along the way…

Jacinta: Yeah mainly because of dodgy traders in ship supplies, disgusting treatment of convicts, cramped unsanitary conditions and the like…

Canto: So there’s no comparison. The human traffic will be a much more of a trickle, and the technology will be state-of-the-art. The proven successes of SpaceX, by the way, are what is bringing backers in. Which brings me back to isolation. It isn’t even known yet how many passengers will be on the first voyage, and they will have to get along extremely well, as they commence the incredibly arduous process of terraforming the region around their landing site – in the absence of ready food, water, and air! No lifeline to Earth. Terrifically hostile environment with massive dust storms, freezing temperatures, health issues due to low gravity and radiation…

Jacinta: It doesn’t so much sound like a problem of isolation as a problem of community and problem-solving…

Canto: Well it’s isolation from the basic stuff we need for survival and from expert treatment and procedure when things go wrong – health-care, technological fixes, raw materials and the means of transforming them and so forth…

Jacinta: Hmmm – can we look at the positives now?

Canto: Well – the food issue. The diet will have to be essentially vegetarian, based on hydroponics. They’ll be growing this stuff on the ship on the way over, presumably. Those first visitants and their followers won’t be in for a holiday – it’ll be work work work. But you can pack a lot of dehydrated stuff such as spices and sauces to taste things up. That would mean having a water supply of course, and that’s not clearly guaranteed.

Jacinta: Yeah but you’re looking at the practical life-and-death stuff. How boring haha. I’m thinking of the inspirational effect of having live human boots on the ground on another planet. I’ve read somewhere that humans could find out stuff about the planet – whether there’s actual life, what the atmosphere feels like, how actually manageable it might be to terraform the place and create a future there – thousands of times more quickly and effectively than any robot could. And in many ways I’d rather see SpaceX succeed in this than a national organisation like NASA. Okay SpaceX might be seen as quintessentially American, but Musk and his team won’t be looking at it that way I’m sure, they’ll be drawing their expertise from anyone around the globe who can contribute. One of the many things I love about science is its international collaborative character. It’s another bulwark against the petty nationalisms of Trump, Xi, Putin and co.

Canto: Okay, let’s stay healthy and watch what the future brings…



Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2019 at 4:08 pm

Shakespeare and the English language

leave a comment »

Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre (my pic) – without the 16th century atmosphere

Canto: I think from time to time about Shakespeare – in fact ever since I was given a complete works for Christmas when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I used to read it on the swing in our backyard – congratulating myself on getting some of Falstaff’s witticisms. The Abbey Library Shakespeare. I still have it almost fifty years later, though I can barely read its minuscule print these days.

Jacinta: Yes I know you’re an admirer, but what do you think of all this stuff about Shakespeare’s massive contribution to the English language? I’ve always thought it was a bit exaggerated.

Canto: Interesting topic, because in one sense I agree with you. But this relates to all those awful people – Derek Jacobi was unfortunately among them – who seem to think that Shakespeare was too low-class to have written the plays. As a not very upper-class bloke meself I feel deeply miffed. Shakespeare’s plays run the class gamut because he himself was about as déclassé as a fellow in Elizabethan England could be, son of a successful businessman, educated in a relatively déclassé school, and, like us, motivated to learn by ear and by the lessons of life – an autodidact and a dilettante.

Jacinta: The counter-argument I’ve heard – to the idea that he must’ve been some Lord or other – is that upper-class education of that time, and perhaps in most periods, just wasn’t all that good. Not to mention the generally cloistered lives of scions of the aristocracy, who not only wouldn’t have been much exposed to a lot of ‘street-talk’, but would’ve been inhibited by their class pride to admit to such knowledge. Writers like Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney were more in the aristocratic mould, full of classical references, ancient legends, knight-errants and lords and ladies – not at all rough around the edges.

Canto: Yes it seems to me Shakespeare was more drawn to real life, and plays were the perfect vehicle for him, to present, in what he imagined were their own terms, kings, commoners and everyone in between. Which brings me to your question about his contribution to the English language. Clearly this was a guy who loved language, almost for its own sake, and he had a finely-tuned ear for it. He certainly read plenty, for his history plays and classically-themed plays, and travelled in his mind and through reading to Venice, Verona, Rome, Athens, Padua, Paris, Ephesus, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Messina, Marseilles, Inverness, Illyria – and that’s not a complete list of venues outside of England. I won’t go on with the English settings. I think this need or desire to set his plays in such varied and far-flung places and eras is an indication of an all-encompassing mind, a wannabe space-time traveller, sampling human discourse and psychology in all its variety, and his interest in language was in keeping with that. As to his contribution to English, speaking quantitatively, the reason that I’m perhaps inclined to agree with you is that scholars, historians, lexicographers and so forth, probably tend to emphasise the written over the spoken language, and so under-estimate the inventiveness of the spoken word, and those who speak it. My uneducated guess is that many if not most of the new coinages we find in Shakespeare, including nouns from verbs and vice versa, may have been part of the ‘illiterate’ street discourse Shakespeare picked up in the London taverns where he conceived, and possibly even wrote, scenes for his plays. They just hadn’t been committed to writing before.

Jacinta: Yes, sounds like a class thing – the idea that the lower classes, not being formally educated, or literate as you say, couldn’t be inventive or creative…

Canto: Or simply indifferent to the ‘rules’ in their need to communicate. We know that new languages – creoles – are created by children, equipped by evolution with some unconscious sense of linguistic structure which allows them to bridge the gap between two distinctive language groups thrown together by chance or coercion. The urge to communicate overthrows any sense of linguistic purity or pride, which in any case is merely nascent in the child’s mind. I’m not saying that Shakespeare was tapping into anything so radical as a new language, and I’m not sure how polyglot London was in his time, but there was undoubtedly a diversity of classes and trades…

Jacinta: Some basic research gives a feel for the place:

The population of London had risen to 200,000 by 1600 and the city was evolving as the multicultural city that it is today. There was a Jewish community in Bishopsgate and a few thousand black people – servants, musicians, and dancers. There were also many Huguenot and Flemish refugees.

Southwark [site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre] was London’s entertainment zone… . The theatres, surrounded by inns, taverns, cockpits, gambling houses and brothels were in Southwark. Partly because of the influx of crowds, Southwark was a dangerous place to wander about in after dark, with muggers, drunkards and pickpockets everywhere.

Shakespeare would almost certainly have visited the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle street – the world’s first shopping mall. It was similar to a modern shopping mall,  a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. One could buy wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.

Public executions were Elizabethan Londoners’ most popular spectator activity. Londoners had a choice among the different kinds of executions: they could go to Tower Hill where the upper class condemned were beheaded with a broadsword or axe or head to Tyburn or Smithfield to see some hangings of ordinary traitors and common criminals. There were about a thousand hangings a year.

Canto: Yes, so you could imagine all sorts of raunchy patois ringing in Will’s ears as he constructed plays set throughout Europe but full of the bustling energy of the city he’d made his home. This richness of language had never been set down in language before. Chaucer should no doubt be cited as a precursor, but the language had changed markedly in the intervening years, what with the ‘great vowel shift’ and the transformations from Middle English. These two great artists were stand-outs in preserving, and no doubt imaginatively adding to, much of the richness of ‘ordinary’ speech of their time.

Jacinta: Okay, two cheers for autodidacts and dilettantes…


21 Facts About Shakespeare’s London

Written by stewart henderson

July 6, 2019 at 3:49 pm

Modern China and the Uyghur people

leave a comment »

Uyghur youngsters – from the East Turkistan Australian Association

A dozen or so years ago I began teaching English at a community college in the north-west suburbs of Adelaide. I didn’t know it at the time, but the area was home to the largest Uyghur community in Australia. The word ‘Uyghur’, of course, meant nothing to me, nor did the English name they gave to their homeland – East Turkistan. My classes were filled mostly with middle-aged Moslem women, along with Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities. Some of them wore hijabs, others didn’t. They – the Uyghurs – were an interesting lot, feisty, chatty, politically aware and close-knit. Over time I learned to my surprise that they weren’t quite ‘middle-eastern’, whatever that vague term means. Or at least they were more eastern than middle, geographically speaking. Had I been forced to guess their nationality, I’d have said maybe Iraqi or Afghani – I had only a vague impression of the various ethnicities – Uzbek, Tajik, Khazak, Pashtun, and their histories of interaction and/or tension. So I was surprised to learn that the Uyghur people live within the current borders of China – specifically, a large, sparsely populated region north of Tibet, which the Chinese call Xinjiang – which translates, interestingly, as ‘new frontier’. Knowing this, of course, alerted me to the probability of tensions in the region, or worse.

This was fully confirmed when the Uyghur social worker at the community centre, with whom I’d become friendly, asked me to help her write a letter to the Australian authorities for assistance in the case of her brother, an Australian citizen, who had been incarcerated in neighbouring Kazakhstan while on a visit to his home region. She explained that the Kazakh government had long been currying favour with the Chinese authorities by rounding up anyone who might favour East Turkistan independence. She also assured me that her brother, while resistant to the brutalities of China, was anything but a terrorist, and wanted nothing more than to return to his family.

I don’t know if our letter had any impact (I very much doubt it), but everything I’ve learned about the region since has, when I’ve turned my attention to it, gripped me with the usual impotent rage I’ve felt whenever a weaker nation, or culture, or person, is harassed and bullied by a stronger one.

Uyghur is a Turkic language, most closely related to Uzbek, and many Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in the ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’, their principal homeland. The term ‘autonomous’ is risible these days, as the Uyghurs are under increasingly intense surveillance and pressure from their Chinese overlords. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is commonplace, and the number of Uyghur inhabitants has dropped from around 76% in 1949, when China annexed the region, down to 42% today. In the same period the population of Han Chinese has risen from around 6% to 40%. It’s a situation that immediately makes me think of Palestinian Arabs under the sway of the Zionist movement since early in the 20th century. To describe it as ethnic cleansing by stealth would underplay the brutality and consequent suffering.

In his very thought-provoking little book The dawn of Eurasia, Bruno Maçães provides a more subtle and certainly less emotionally-charged account of China’s modernising movement, a movement which has little patience for ethnic diversity and the preservation of traditional cultures. Of course, nations like Australia and the USA are also struggling with the rights and aspirations of traditional indigenous cultures in the light of a relentless modernism, but both of these ‘western’ nations seek to accommodate those cultures under a framework of individual freedom (more or less). Maçães notes that China’s modernist ‘dream’ is more collective, requiring everyone to ‘get with the the program’.

I should point out that Macaes is talking about the Chinese government’s dream, one first iterated by Xi Jinping, who clearly wants to make a distinction between what one might call European, or European-style, liberalism and what he personally wants his country to be. The question of what ‘the Chinese people’ actually want or have dreams about – well, it’s moot. Nobody can say, certainly not Xi.

Nevertheless Xi and his cohorts are wielders of massive power, and for the time being they’re suppressing all but their own manufactured vision of the Chinese future. Maçães writes of a document distributed within the CCP shortly after Xi’s public maundering about the Chinese dream:

It outlined the main political perils the Party leadership was urged to guard against, all of them located within the ‘ideological sphere’ and calling for an ideological response. The document started by denouncing those who replace the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation with an obverse ‘constitutional dream’, imported from the West and claiming that China should strive to catch up with the West by adopting a form of constitutional government and following Western political models. Linked to this, a second false trend attempts to promote Western values as ‘universal’, claiming that the West’s value system ‘defies time and space, transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity’. The document then goes on to complete a full indictment of Western political ideas, including an independent civil society, economic liberalism and freedom of the press. The General Office is particularly insistent on the principle that ‘the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party’. Criticism by the media must be managed, supervision supervised. Those who deny this principle are looking to use media freedom in order to ‘gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology’. By allowing mistaken ideas to spread, critics will disturb the existing consensus on which road to take and which goals to pursue, and ‘disrupt our nation’s stable progress on reform and development’.

Bruno Maçães, The dawn of Eurasia, pp125-6

This is truly chilling stuff. The chances that an ‘existing consensus’ can be found regarding China’s future are about as likely as finding proof of the existence of some god or other, and needless to say, this fake consensus finds no place for the Uyghur people or any other minority culture within China – in fact they’re clearly in the way of what the current dictatorship deems to be progress, and nothing illustrates this so well as the city of Khorgos in Xinjiang, right on the border with Kazakhstan.

If you haven’t heard of Khorgos, you’re not alone. The city didn’t exist 5 years ago, but now it’s full of skyscrapers and already has a population of 200,000. It has been built as a major component of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ economic infrastructure project, which seeks to connect with central Asia and Europe as a means of facilitating trade, cultural exchange, financial ties and the like. Ambitious young people are being attracted there in large numbers, from all over China and other distant parts. The place apparently does have a multicultural feel, but only from a high-flying, business perspective – though cheap labour from the surrounding country side (e.g the Uyghurs) is an essential part of the plan. The Belt and Road future, if it can be pulled off, will mean that freight services will be able to shift products overland from China to Western Europe in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of current maritime transport. Interestingly, China has been turning its back on seaports, due to environmental congestion and high labour costs, and building more inland cities such as Khorgos. The future, as China sees it, lies with ‘a new network of railways, roads and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe and China through the shortest and most direct route’ (Maçães).

the Khorgos gateway – a new rail port for Eurasia…

The Chinese government is arguing – no doubt sincerely – that its Belt and Road project will provide great opportunities for those who get on board with it, and that includes not only the Uyghur people, but the peoples of the Eurasian region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, to name a few. This vast region is seen as a reservoir of barely-tapped economic potential, and the Belt and Road is being sold as a grand tide lifting all boats between and within Western Europe and China. But of course there are critics as well as fierce opponents. The growing presence of Chinese on the borders of and within Kazakhstan, for example, has seen protests there which have threatened the stability of the Nazarbayev regime (Nazarbayev resigned as President of Kazakhstan in March this year, but essentially still runs the country). Russia, India and a number of Western European nations have expressed grave concerns – Russia in particular is seeking to build its own rival economic network, and ‘infiltration’ of the project into Pakistan and Kashmir is creating regional tension. Obviously, any threat of a Chinese ascendancy outside its borders, given the Chinese government’s totalitarian control of its own people, is of global concern. The only way to allay those concerns, at least from a western perspective, is liberalisation within China, and a full recognition of the diversity of its people, in cultural, ideological and other respects.


Maçães, Bruno, The dawn of Eurasia: on the trail of the new world order. 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2019 at 1:10 pm

discussing mental health and illness

leave a comment »

Canto: I’ve been told I’m on the autism spectrum, by someone who’s not on it, presumably, but who’s also not an expert on such things, but I’m not sure who is.

Jacinta: Well of course we’re all on the autism spectrum, it depends on your location on it, I suppose, if you need to worry. ‘You’re sick’ is one of the oldest lines of abuse, but I’m reminded of a passage in The moral landscape, which I’m currently rereading. He describes a funny-but-not-so-funny piece of research by one D L Rosenhan:

… in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words ’empty’, ‘hollow and ‘thud’. Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became ‘paragons of cooperation’, their average length of hospitalisation was 19 days (ranging from 7 to 52 days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet. None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia ‘in remission’ (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like ‘You’re not crazy – you’re a journalist’.

S. Harris, The moral landscape, p142

Canto: Well, that’s a fascinating story, but let’s get skeptical. Has that study been replicated? We know how rarely that happens. And there are quite a few other questions worth asking. Wouldn’t most of the staff etc have been primed to assume these patients had a genuine mental illness? And surely only a small percentage would have had the authority to make a decision either way. Who exactly had them committed, what was the process, and what was the relationship between those doing the diagnosis and those engaging in treatment and daily care? Was there any fudging on the part of the pseudo-patients (who were apparently also the researchers) in order to prove their point (which presumably was that mental illness can be easily shammed)? And wouldn’t you expect other patients, many of whom wouldn’t believe in their own mental problems, to be supportive of the sanity of those around them?

Jacinta: Okay, those are some valid points, but are you prepared to accept that a lot of these mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (the name speaks volumes), attention deficit disorder, narcissistic whatever disorder and so on, are a little flakey around the edges?

Canto: Maybe, but with solid centres I’m sure. Depression is probably the most common of those mental conditions, and too much skepticism on that count could obviously lead to disaster. Take the case of South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There appears to be a nationwide skepticism about mental health issues there, which clashes with high stress levels to create a crisis of care. Professional help is rarely sought and isn’t widely available. It raises the question of the value of skepticism in some areas.

Jacinta: I wonder if the rapid advances in neurophysiology can help us here. Mental health is all about the brain. In the above quote, the pseudo-patients were mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s surprising. In my naïveté I would’ve thought there was a neurological test for schizophrenia by now.

Canto: Well, the experiment described in The moral landscape dates from the early seventies, but currently there’s still no diagnostic test for schizophrenia based on the brain itself, it’s all about such symptoms as specific delusions and hallucinations, which could still be shammed I suppose, if anyone wanted to. But what about borderline personality disorder – I was told recently that it’s very real, in spite of the name.

Jacinta: Well, there appears to be a mystery about the causes, and a general confusion about the symptoms, which seem to be rather wide-ranging – though I suppose if a patient displays several of them you can safely conclude that she’s stark staring bonkers.

Canto: Yes that’s a thing about mental illness, quite seriously. You don’t need to be an expert to notice when people are behaving in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and others, especially if it’s a sharp deviation from previous behaviour. And if it’s a slow descent, as quite often depression can be, it’s harder to pick from that person’s standard lugubrious personality, so to speak. And in the end, maybe the labelling isn’t so important as the help and the treatment. But then, people love a label – they want to know precisely what’s wrong with them.

Jacinta: I suppose the difficulty with mental illness and labelling, as opposed to labelling other more ‘physical’ illnesses or injuries, is the near-ineffable complexity of the brain. For example, I notice that among the symptoms of borderline personality disorder are apparent behaviours that don’t really cohere in any way. This site places the symptom of uncertainty and indecisiveness along with extreme risk-taking and impulsiveness, and then there is fear of abandonment, and other odd behaviours which seem to head in different directions, seeming to have one thing alone in common – being extreme or abnormal.

Canto: Yes, again, behaviour that tends to harm the self or others.

Jacinta: At the moment, I think there are still too few connections between neurology and psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness, though it’s a matter of enormous complexity. I had thought, for example, that the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine was essential to our understanding of schizophrenia, but more recent research has found that the neurochemistry of the condition involves many other factors, including glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and serotonin. There’s so much more work to be done. But we also need to be very aware of the social and cultural conditions that tip people over the edge into mental illness. Changes in the way our brain is functioning might be seen as proximal causes of an increase in depression and suicide, but it’s more likely that the ultimate causes have to do with the stresses that particular organisations, societies and cultures impose upon us.

Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm

towards James Clerk Maxwell 5: a bit about light

leave a comment »

Canto: Our last piece in this Maxwell series dealt with the apparently irrelevant matter of Newton’s laws of motion…

Jacinta: But not irrelevant in that Newton was so seminal to the foundation of, and mathematisation of, modern physics, and he set the course…

Canto: Yes and we’ll have to go back to his work on gravity to really get a feel for the maths side of things I think.

Jacinta: No doubt, but in keeping with our disorganised approach to out topic I’m going to fast forward to give a partial account of Maxwell himself, before he did his major work. Maxwell was clearly indefatigably curious about the physical world even in childhood. He was conducting various chemical, electrical and magnetic experiments at home and later at the University of Edinburgh, from his early teens, and writing papers – the first at the age of fourteen – which were accepted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, though he was considered too young to present them himself.

Canto: But we’re going to focus here on his focus on light, since we’ve been going on mostly about electricity and magnetism thus far. Light, and its wave properties, is something we’re going to have to get our heads around as we approach Maxwell’s work from various angles, and it’s horribly mathematical.

Jacinta: Yes, the properties of polarised light were among Maxwell’s earliest and most abiding areas of interest and research, so we need to understand what that’s all about.

Canto: Okay, here’s a simple definition of the term ‘polarisation’. It’s ‘a property applying to transverse waves that specifies the geometrical orientation of the oscillations’. That’s from Wikipedia.

Jacinta: That’s not simple. Do you understand that?

Canto: No, not yet. So waves are generally of two types, transverse and longitudinal. A moving wave oscillates. That’s the up-and-down movement you might see on a graph. In a transverse wave, the oscillations are at right angles to the movement of the wave. Light waves are transverse waves apparently, as opposed to sound waves, which are longitudinal – in which the wave oscillates, or vibrates, in the direction of propagation. That doesn’t make immediate sense to me, but for now we’ll focus on transverse light waves and polarisation. A light wave, we now know, is an electromagnetic wave, but don’t worry about that for now. Let me try to explain unpolarised light. The light from the sun is unpolarised, as is your bedroom light or that from a struck match. The light waves from these sources are vibrating in a multitude of directions – every direction, you might say. Polarised light is light that we can get to vibrate on a single plane, or in some other specific way..- .

Jacinta: So how do we polarise light is presumably the question. And why do we call it polarised?

Canto: I don’t know why it’s called polarised, but it’s light that’s controlled in a specific way, for example by filtration. The filter might be a horizontal grid or a vertical grid. Let me quote two sentences from one of many explaining sites, and we’ll drill down into them:

Natural sunlight and almost every other form of artificial illumination transmits light waves whose electric field vectors vibrate in all perpendicular planes with respect to the direction of propagation. When the electric field vectors are restricted to a single plane by filtration, then the light is said to be polarized with respect to the direction of propagation and all waves vibrate in the same plane.

So electric field vectors (and we know that vectors have something to do with directionality, I think) are directions of a field, maybe. And a ‘field’ here is an area of electric charge – the area in which that charge has an influence, say on other charges. It was Michael Faraday who apparently came up with this idea of an electric field, which weakens in proportion to distance, in the same manner as gravity. A field is not actually a force, but more a region of potential force.

Jacinta: It seems we might have to start at the beginning with light, which is a huge fundamental force or energy, which has been speculated on and researched for millennia. I’ve just been exploring the tip of that particular iceberg, and it makes me think about how particular forces or phenomena, which are kind of universal with regard to humans on our modern earth, are taken for granted until they aren’t. Think for example of gravity, which wasn’t even a thing before Newton came along, it was just ‘natural’ that things fell down to earth. And think of air, which many people still think of as ’empty’. Light is another of those phenomena, but it’s been explored for longer than the others because it’s much more variable and multi-faceted, at least at first glance haha.. Darkness, half-light, firelight, shadow effects, the behaviour of light in water, rainbows and other tricks of light would’ve challenged the curious from the beginning, so it’s not surprising that theories of light and optics go back such a long way.

Canto: Yes and the horror of it – for some – is that mathematics is key to understanding so much of it – especially trigonometry. But returning to those electric field vectors – and maybe we’ll go back to the beginning with light in the future, – in a light wave, the oscillations are the electric and magnetic fields, pointing in all directions perpendicular to the wave’s propagation.

Jacinta: Yes, I get that, and polarised light limits all those perpendicular directions, or perpendicular planes, to one, by filtration, or maybe some other means.

Canto: Right, but notice I spoke of electric and magnetic fields, which is why light is described as an electromagnetic wave. It should also be pointed out that we tend to call them light waves only in the part of the spectrum visible to humans, but physics deals with all electromagnetic waves. Our eyes, and it’s different for many other species, detect light from a very small part of the entire wave, or electromagnetic, spectrum. Wavelengths of less than about 380 nanometres (even less when we’re young) at the ‘ultraviolet’ end, and of more than about 750 nm at the long ‘infrared’ end, form the visible spectrum for humans. Beyond UV light we have x-rays and then gamma rays, and beyond the infrared we have microwaves and then radio waves.

Jacinta: I wonder if Maxwell knew about all this in his day.

Canto: We’ll no doubt find out…


Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2019 at 10:55 am

Droning on

leave a comment »

the ‘global hawk’ drone – says it all really

This may be fact or fiction: a US drone, purposed for surveillance, and who knows what else, is flying in or near Iranian air-space, and is shot down. Iran is naturally the major suspect. Applying the shoe-on-the-other-foot test, if an Iranian drone, for whatever purpose, was flying in or near US air-space, would the US shoot it down? My vague guess is – absolutely, 100%. The USA and Iran are currently sworn enemies, for whatever reason. So this kind of drone behaviour would naturally be seen as a provocation and a threat. And just a bit rude.

This surely isn’t rocket science, it’s more like drone ethics. Or am I missing something here?

Written by stewart henderson

June 26, 2019 at 8:53 am