Tag Archives: science

A music-and-science blog

The two things I find the most immensely interesting and continually impressing are music and neuroscience . . . Philosophy and politics are my second loves.

Science and music often go together—many of the best amateur musicians who I know are GPs, for example—but they aren’t all that often explicitly put together in blog form.

Today I finally got round to having a look at Science with Moxie, which is Princess Ojiaku‘s blog on the Scientific American Blog Network. If you’re interested in both science and music you should probably have a look. And if you’re interested in the science (not solely neuro-) of music you should definitely have a look.

The most recent post, for example,  describes brain-imaging experiments designed to look at the brain’s processing of words, pitch and rhythm. All three elements are present in both singing and speech, so (for example) is there a difference between the brain’s processing of pitch in speech and its processing of musical pitch? It also includes a nice video illustrating the way in which a fragment of speech, when repeated, begins to sound like a fragment of song in which the individual notes are so well defined that a listener can sing the tune back.

I’m tempted to list more of the posts but really, the best way for you to find out what’s there is to go and see for yourself . . . which I hope you will.

Why did people think the Sun went round the Earth?

Here’s something which puzzled me for a long time, until I happened to come across the answer a couple of years or so ago. I think the book Episodes from the Early History of Mathematics by Asger Aaboe (Cambridge University Press, 1997) provided me with the revelation, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

The puzzle

When people began watching the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky and measuring them properly—which happened many centuries ago—their movements turned out to be quite complicated, especially if you assumed (as most people did) that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe. Everything circled the Earth once a day, but with various wobbles superimposed on the motion.

This led to a rather unsatisfying and complicated picture involving epicycles, in which a planet’s motion in the sky was a combination of two or more movements: its circle around the Earth plus the various wobbles.

Before I go any further, let me point out that the the idea of a flat earth wouldn’t have entered into this: the realisation that the Earth was a sphere happened around 300 BC and Eratosthenes was the first to measure its size—with remarkable accuracy—in about 240 BC.

It was occasionally suggested that things might make more sense if actually everything went round the Sun, with the Earth rotating once a day. Yet, there was great resistance to that explanation. Why? What was the problem? Why not switch to the obvious answer? Why not just do it? Why was the “Copernican revolution” so revolutionary?

One reason was that Copernicus’ system, which based everything on combinations of perfectly circular movements, ended up being even more complex than what had gone before. But there’s another, very simple and logical reason.

The answer

If we look at the night sky we see the Moon, and lots of little points of light. Mostly these keep the same positions relative to each other, simply circling the North pole (or South pole if you’re south of the equator). They behave as though they’re attached to a rigid sphere, making them all rotate together. That was called the sphere of the fixed stars, and was thought of as the outermost part of the universe.

A few of them, though, seem not to be attached to it. They  move around according to  rules of their own, and were given spheres of their own to move them. But apart from that—and from not twinkling—they look pretty much the same as the other points of light. They just happen to be attached to their own spheres instead of the outer one.

How far away were the fixed stars?  Nobody knew, but they couldn’t really be much further away than the moving ones or they’d be too dim to see.

So far so good. But why can’t the Sun be at the centre instead of us? What difference would it make, apart from a little bit of wounded pride?

Putting the Sun at the centre of this picture creates a huge, glaring problem.

The closer you are to something, the bigger it looks. If the Earth went round the Sun, then any given constellation would change size in the sky as we moved towards and away from it. This would be clearly visible. Yet we don’t see it. And that, surely, proves that the Earth isn’t moving. It must be the Sun which moves around the Earth.

The revolution

So if you want the Sun at the centre, you have to explain why the fixed stars always stay the same distance apart in the sky. This entails making the sphere they’re attached to considerably bigger. And then you have to make them bright enough to see, so they’re not little twinkly things any more, but are like other suns in their own right.

But the Sun and its collection of spheres was the entire universe. Saying that the stars are really other suns is like saying that actually there are thousands of universes. It’s mind-boggling. It sounds somewhat insane.

It’s not a matter of demoting the Earth a little from its symbolic position as the centre around which everything revolves, and giving that honour instead to the Sun; it’s a matter of making both the Earth and the Sun utterly insignificant in the scheme of things.

Seen that way, the idea is indeed shocking.

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .

Christians and the environment

The environment as a moral issue

As you’ll know if you’ve read my About page, one of my interests is the relationship between sane religion and honest science. By that I mean religion which lives in a real world, and science which is allowed to be itself and not bent to fit some religious viewpoint.

Many current findings of science, of course, concern human impact on the environment. Christianity hasn’t always done a brilliant job environmentally. All you need do is read the beginning of Genesis for its ideas—not as as the pre-scientific science it was never intended to be—to see the difference between its vision and the role we have acquired. The Earth is meant to be “fruitful” and is “very good”. Our position of power over other living things, recognised in Genesis, gives us an obilgation to look after them, delighting in creation’s goodness and living in harmony with it.

Historically the church has largely forgotten this, seeing the Earth as being there simply for human beings to exploit as we like. So we’ve become alienated from it (another theme of the stories!), becoming agents of destruction rather than creation.

Personally I see environmental damage as a major moral issue for followers of a religion which believes in the goodness of God and sees God as the source of all existence and of all life. Harming the Earth is wrong for the same reason that harming people is: it is created and loved by God. [1] We should should be giving life to our part of creation and building it up, not destroying it.

So it’s good to know that there are Christians—and members of other religions—who are taking this seriously.

Christian Ecology Link

One organisation working to bring such people together and encourage those in the church to care about the environment is Christian Ecology Link. I’ve been a regular recipient of their email newsletter since well before the world went green (or at least, wanted to look green).

In keeping with the organisation’s name, the newlsetter is largely a collection of brief news items linking to information about organisations and events. Below are the links from the latest issue. Hopefully this will give you an idea of the breadth of material it covers. The wording is mine, not taken from the newsletter:

And I’ve not included the items which had no web address but just a person to email, or the final item which gave links for help on public speaking. Also, since it wasn’t in the newsletter, I’ve not mentioned a joint event with the London Islamic Network for the Environment . . .

If this kind of news is of interest to you, visit the CEL website and sign up for their newsletter.


[1] Creation is a word which sometimes carries misleading overtones. Not helped, in fact, by the existence of creationism. People think of a moment in time when God made everything.

As far as I’m concerned creation isn’t a moment in time. Neither is it an alternative process to the one science sees, with God bypassing the laws of physics and designing every little detail of, say, the human appendix. When I say God is creator, I mean that every part of space and time exists because God makes existence possible; the laws of physics, or any deeper laws that explain them, exist because of God; the process of evolution that produced life exists because of the way those laws are. If God controlled the process, it would no longer be a free one and the universe wouldn’t really be God’s creation, just be an extension of God. Neither would there be any room for free will, or for spiritually aware life (such as us) to respond freely to God. Back