Separate is Never Equal

It is astounding how quickly we forget or wilfully ignore that human rights are there to protect people – not beliefs. At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, of which I’m president, we increasingly see this confused notion of rights being applied on UK campuses. Whether it’s our student groups intimidated for “blasphemy”, as at LSE and Reading, or religious societies refusing unmarried women permission to speak, as at Bristol, this trumping of individual rights by the supposed rights of “beliefs” is increasingly common.

This Friday saw the publication of a report from Universities UK, the body representing university Vice Chancellors across the UK, on external speakers on campus. The report tackled the kind of issues you might expect – how to handle far-right speakers, what kind of speech might fall foul of hate-speech laws and what groups are banned under anti-terror legislation. But nestled in the report was a bizarre and backward recommendation; universities should be willing to enforce sex segregation between male and female audience members if a speaker requests it.

The report’s peculiar logic ran as follows: speakers have the right to free speech but if their demands for sex segregation are not met they will refuse to speak. Therefore to not enforce sex segregation is to deny the speakers’ freedom of speech. The report is careful only to endorse the ‘nice’ kind of segregation with men and women split on the left and right hand sides of a lecture theatre rather than front and back, the logic here being that men and women are being treated ‘equally separately’, whatever that means.

This logic has echoes of the old racially segregated Deep South of the United States; separate but equal. To argue that segregation is not inherently unequal is to fail to see just why men and women are being kept apart in the first place; this drive for segregation stems from ideologies that view women as very much inferior to men. To allow these ideologies power in UK universities is to betray hard-won individual rights and the principle that in public spaces all must be treated equally. Separate is never equal.

The Universities UK report treats the ideology driving the segregation as if it were something inherent to the speaker that he (and it will always be he) can’t help, as if requiring him to speak to a mixed sex room would be like asking him to levitate. The reality is that ideologies are chosen and speakers alone are responsible for them, not their audience.

Many religious student societies will hold their own events, such as collective worship, at which students will choose to separate themselves by sex in accordance with their beliefs. Insofar as this is voluntary, this is acceptable. What Universities UK have called for, however, is enforced segregation, with students told where to sit, according to their sex, or they can leave. The report then goes on to consider having a third, mixed sex section of the audience as well as a male and a female section. Incredibly, this apparent compromise is then rejected by the report, which warns that to insist on a third mixed sex section is still infringing on the rights of the speaker to have a segregated audience. The report goes as far as to say that non-religious beliefs, such as feminism, should take second place to “sincerely held” religious beliefs. That’s right; the mere fact that they are religious makes some beliefs more important than others because, of course, Feminist can’t be sincere in their beliefs.

The Universities UK report focuses on sex because it’s an issue that has come up before but there is no reason for its logic to stop there. If a racist is invited to speak – should he not have the audience forcibly segregated into whites and non-whites? What if his beliefs are really “sincerely held”? Could the EDL insist on all Muslim students sitting separately? Of course Universities UK would never support this.

In advocating for enforced sex segregation they are cowardly capitulating to religious extremists in a way they surely never would to political extremists. In bending to these extremists, universities betray the moderate majority in religious groups who do not wish to see segregation or, at least, would not want it to be forced on others. Men and women should sit where they wish. Universities have a duty to protect the rights of their students, they do not have a duty to protect their beliefs.

One Year As A Cyclist

This time last year I bought a bike. It had taken four years of living in the city but I was finally living my stereotyped London dream of flying around on two wheels, fluorescent jacket fluorescing and carbon emissions zeroing; king of the road. The bike was freedom. Unlike the tube, I could get exactly where I wanted to go rather than a ten walk away. Unlike the car I could tie the thing to the nearest pole and get on with it. It was blue in some parts and another shade of blue in other parts. It was perfect. 

I was initially cautious, sticking to journeys through parks and laughing with unbridled joy as I left hapless pedestrians and the occasional horse in my wake. What chance did they stand? The bicycle was the vehicle of the future and I its shiny jacketed prophet. The speed, the elegance, the dinging bell. They were glorious days but this was mere child’s play and I knew it. It couldn’t be long before I left my bipedal and quadropedal playmates for the Big Boy world of the London road.

If you haven’t had the experience of being a tiny sack of squishy meat fleeing a stampeding herd of steel wildebeest who dislike you for not having to pay road tax then you haven’t cycled in London. There are few things to make you so acutely aware of your own mortality as passing through Trafalgar Square at half past 5 on a weekday. The roundabout seems to be governed by chaos and bravery, often forcing me to circle it a few times before escaping to the correct exit. It’s always while trying to change lane that you realise your helmet is essentially an upturned polystyrene cup with holes in it, which doesn’t help much either.
It’s when the sun starts to set that the real horrors kick in. No matter how many flashing LEDs I attach to myself (I’m starting to look like a human-shaped Tetris game), drivers will never behave as if they are aware of my existence, barely missing me as they overtake. Potholes, conveniently located at the side of the road where the cyclists cycle, are rendered near-invisible, leaving my backside near-unsittable. Then if you’re out really late, you have the joys of drunk cyclists to look forward to, wibbling and wobbling side to side as if the road were one big tightrope.

It’s fair to say I had an authentic experience of cycling in London but my baptism wasn’t fully complete until 6 weeks into bike ownership when I gobbled my last piece of authenticity pie; my bike was stolen. Well, sort-of stolen. I kept forgetting to lock the thing up and eventually someone took up my offer of a free bike.

I was bereft. Yes, the bike was a source of mortal peril but it had given me a certain freedom I now had lost. For the first time I had started to understand London as a city, a coherent whole. Travelling by road I had seen how one part related to the other. Now, stuck on the underground, I was confined to a sub-par existence of perfectly straight tube lines and other people’s body odour. Here there was less danger of death but it was all false and artificial, like only playing chess with your four year old brother; yes, you’ll never lose but you’ll never experience the challenge of a good game, not to mention the fact that his still developing spatial awareness means you have to move his knights for him.

Marx would say I was “alienated” from my true nature. All I know is I missed my bike and really wanted to get a new one. I got one second hand in the RAG bike auction for £30 which lasted precisely ten seconds when I realised it was meant for someone a foot shorter than me. In the end it took months of saving but I finally bought a shiny cream coloured bike with white handlebars and a white seat. It’s a bike fit for the Angel Gabriel himself and is serving me valiantly. We’ve been together now for 6 months and haven’t looked back, the steaming sweat patch on my back during morning lectures a testimony to our bond.

My year of London cycling has been both off-putting and on-turning, a mixture of horror and freedom. For all its perils, cycling really is the best way to get to know the city and feel part of it. If you really must walk, my last word is for you; ask not for whom them bell tolls, it tolls for thee. So get off my damned cycle path.

Men of Imperial- How To Talk About Gender

Most students at Imperial are men. While this gender imbalance is obvious from the first day of Freshers Week, what it means and how to talk about it can be more challenging. Whispered remarks about “The Ratio” can be heard on most courses and jokes abound about the sexual frustration of Imperial’s males; the straight ones at least. But beyond this, any serious discussion of gender among students can often be dismissed. We can be pretty poor at talking gender and it’s we men who seem to do it worst. 

The low proportion of women students at Imperial is not the College’s fault and in fact when compared to the science, engineering and medicine departments in the rest of the UK, we have slightly more equal gender ratio than average. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be discussed. When posters went up last year in the chemistry department showing the proportion of female researchers in the different groups, it was graffitied with “So? Problem?” Posters inviting female physics students to a female-only event were graffitied with comments calling the event “sexist”. These comments are massively unhelpful and entirely miss the point. It can be tempting to think that simply removing legal barriers to female academics is sufficient to right historic wrongs. A glance at the progress of African Americans since the end of legal segregation in 1954 suggests otherwise. It is quite right that we make a particular effort to encourage schoolgirls to be interested in science and for women undergraduates to pursue their subjects further. When we men are dismissive of the idea, we serve the status quo.

Last week a mini Twitter storm broke out over an upcoming science event in the Excel Arena of Olympic fame. The event features 6 panelists including Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, which is a very cool and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel, all 6 speakers are men. As with Imperial, it is not the fault of the organisers if these were genuinely the best candidates. Where they messed up was with the FAQ on their website, which addressed lack of women. They said; “I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?” “No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that’s what they’re for. We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Yes, this is supposed to be comically exaggerated language but even ignoring the labelling of those who complain of the lack of women speakers as “bigoted” and “misandristic”, the FAQ’s message is quite clear; put up and shut up. We should do neither. It is quite right and reasonable to wonder why the organisers failed to find a single woman panelist. It may indeed be the case that they really did try, but this is hardly the first panel event on science to be all male, and maintaining the status quo allows a self fulfilling prophesy whereby men gain higher profiles from speaking at events which leads them to be invited to more events. It may not be up to this particular event to “fix” this, but to brush it away as a non-issue is wilful ignorance.

Men of Imperial, we can do better than this. To question why the gender imbalance is as it  is not to question whether any one of us deserves to be here or to suggest that College discriminate in favour of women students and employees. Students are right to challenge the status quo and make active efforts to encourage women scientists in College and further afield. Dismissing these efforts as “sexist” is lazy. The Excel event told us that “as scientists we have no choice but to accept reality.” This is a strange definition of science. Rather, as scientists we examine reality, come to understand how it works and find out how to change it. Scientists do not simply accept reality.

Choosing Our Non Prophet Week Charity

If our decisions are not to be based on faith then what should guide us? Most people, I hope, would answer, “evidence” but most of the time, other factors get in the way. It can be easy to simply follow the crowd or opt just for what “feels” right. This is especially common when it comes to supporting charities; the heart wins out over the head. Investing in condoms and sex-education can be as many as 250 times more affective at preventing HIV/ AIDS deaths as investing in drugs to treat those who already have it, yet this goes relatively underfunded against the emotional instinct to help those who are already sick.

So when it came to choosing a charity for our annual Non Prophet Week, we wanted to keep things as rational and evidence based as possible. We chose to focus on getting the most bang for your bucks; making sure that if your money could make a bigger difference elsewhere, that’s exactly where it went. We also needed to choose just what we wanted the charity to be up to. This is a more emotional question- can we really compare side-by-side the work done by a charity that provides free books for children to one that helps sick hedgehogs to one that helps refugees? We went for the simplest, bluntest measure we could; who saves the most lives for the least money? This doesn’t make charity that isn’t aimed at saving lives a waste of time; the BHA, after all, is a charity that doesn’t go out saving babies from burning buildings and yet we are proud to be partnered with them. But the BHA can be helped in many non-financial ways; saving lives, on the other hand, is a costly business. In fact the US government, when investing in road works, sets a maximum cost of around $2 million per America life. So if a new set of traffic lights will save 4 lives in its lifetime, they’ll spend up to $8 million on them.

Luckily for the AHS, although depressingly in terms of global inequality, some lives are much cheaper to save than others. Working out just how much it costs to save a life is a difficult and painstaking process but there are organisations out there doing it such as GiveWell, the charity evaluators. With cost-per-life-saved as our guide, the best charity for NPW was clear- the Against Malaria Foundation. Keep in mind that $2 million price tag for saving an American life. The AMF save one life for every $2,500. Not only do they save lives, in preventing malaria (by distributing mosquito nets), they prevent a great deal of suffering for those who would have caught the disease but survived. They also boost local economies by keeping people in work rather than off, ill. They boost education by keeping children and teachers in school. Each net is delivered at a total cost of $5.50. You can see more of the GiveWell evaluation here

So that’s why we chose them. I hope you’re as excited about their work as we are- judging by the money we’ve raised in the past, we stand to save quite a few lives in this week of fundraising. The big question remaining is just how will you do it? The next few weeks are your chance to get thinking about raising dollah. The exec will be too- I’ve already ended up agreeing to a Creme Egg eating competition with the BHA’s webmaster. Let us know your ideas and we’ll get them on Twitter with #NonProphetWeek and Facebook. Let’s save some lives.

AHS Statement On The Intimidation of LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society

For the second day in a row our affiliated society, the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, have faced intimidation and threats from its students union and university for their refusal to remove t-shirts featuring the cartoon Jesus and Mo. Their statement on today’s events can be read below. For their statement on yesterday’s event please click here.

The LSESU’s statement, which omits any reference to the use of security guards, can be read here.

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, “Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.”

Rory can be contacted at president@ahsstudents.org.uk and 07403141133.

—Statement from LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society on the second day of LSE Freshers’ Fair—

An account of events at the LSE Freshers’ Fair on Friday, October 4th:

We (Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos) arrived at the Fair at 10 am. In silent protest at our treatment the day before (see account of events of October 3rd), and still unsure as to what parts of the t-shirts had allegedly caused “offence”, we put tape (with the words “Censored”, “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here”) over the faces of the “Jesus and Mo” figures on the t-shirts.

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

At about 2:30pm, Paul Thornbury, Head of LSE Security, delivered a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield. The letter claimed that some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, even though we had covered up the “offensive” parts of the t-shirts. It claimed we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure, and that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation”, and “undermining the spirit of the LSESU Freshers’ Fair and good campus relations at LSE”. It concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery”, and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”.

Shortly thereafter, having completed our work at the stall, we began packing up. As we were about to leave, Paul Thornbury returned to confirm we were leaving. We told him that we were, and as we left the room, we saw that he was accompanied by several security guards, LSESU General Secretary Jay Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara. The Security officials left the building at the same time as we did, confirming our impression that they had only been there to monitor us, like the two security guards positioned at our stall the day before to stop us attempting to put our t-shirts back on.

We can confirm that the aforementioned Students Union and LSE Security staff were the only visitors to our stall who expressed offence at our clothing. We had students from all kind of backgrounds come to us to express their support and astonishment about the heavy-handed actions of the LSE and LSESU, including several students who self-identified as Muslims.

We are still in shock about the intimidating behaviour of the LSESU and LSE staff. Again, we strongly reject the claim that our clothing or behaviour could be reasonably interpreted as “harassing” or “offensive”. In any case, we believe that in an open and multi-cultural society, there can be no right not to be offended without undermining freedom of expression, which is essential to the functioning of universities as much as of wider society.

We have written to the LSE Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning, Paul Kelly, and the Head of LSE Legal and Compliance, Kevin Haynes, expressing indignation at our treatment and seeking a full explanation of the grounds of the allegations against us. We are still awaiting a detailed reply.

Abhishek Phadnis & Chris Moos

Contact: c.m.moos@lse.ac.uk
074 2872 0599

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Science, Atheism and Gender

Science and atheism often go hand in hand. Many of the UK’s most famous atheists are also scientists, from Dawkins to Cox to Al Khalili. Unfortunately British atheism also shares some of the problems of British science and not least of these is gender representation. The blunt truth is that science and atheism are both dominated by men.

There was a mini-Twitter storm this week about an upcoming science event in London, “Consensus”, an event we’ve been helping to publicise and at which I’ll be volunteering. The event looks ridiculously cool with Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, among others, sharing a stage to talk about science- an inspired and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel- all 6 speakers are men. But where the organisers really messed up was in the FAQs for the event, in which they addressed the lack of women. Here’s a screenshot-

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To say the least, these comments aren’t helpful. It’s one thing to organise an event with only male speakers, which may not reflect a problem with the organisers so much as with science at large, but quite another to label those who simple raise the gender issue as “fanatical and misandristic” with “bigoted” opinions. Yes, this was meant to be comically over the top language, in keeping with the rest of the FAQ’s, but even going past the use of language the message remains “put up and shut up”. This is the absolute last thing we shoould say about gender imbalance.

The idea that there could be at least one woman speaker out of 6 isn’t absurd. There don’t seem to be data for the whole UK but at my own university, Imperial College London, around 20% of researchers are women. This makes the odds of, at random, picking a male speaker to be 0.8 which is pretty high. But the odds of picking 6 male speakers at random are 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 0.26; in other words we would expect only 26% of panels to be all male. All things being equal, we are quite justified in wondering why at least one woman isn’t on the panel. This is a institutional issue and not simply the fault of one event in London but for them to brush it aside as a non-issue of interest only to fanatics serves to excuse the status quo.

This is an issue that matters to the AHS, not least because we are currently organising our 2014 convention. After our initial invitations went out to potential speakers, all 6 who said they could come were men. We didn’t mean this to happen and like the organisers of Consensus we had also contacted women who just couldn’t make it. But we aren’t just leaving it. We put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for recommendations of women speakers and have been flooded with dozens of suggestions. This is no “positive discrimination”; these are women who are perfect for our convention but for various reasons don’t have the same profile as their male counterparts. Their invitations went out this week; incidentally on the same day that attention was drawn to Consensus’ FAQ’s.

Consensus have since removed this part of their FAQ’s, without offering an explanation. Both science and atheism are increasingly in the public eye and gaining ground. Atheists cannot criticise the Church of England for banning women bishops as long our own “bishops”, our most prominent leaders, are almost all men. A deliberate effort needs to be made by event organisers if we are to be serious about increasing representation within our movements. These events send a message about who we are. The AHS will play its part.

AHS member? I want to know your thoughts on this- please drop me an email on president(at)ahsstudents.org.uk

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Secular Europe March 14th September

People should be treated equally when accessing public services. It’s mad that so simple a statement should need to be shouted and yet when it comes to religious privilege in the UK, that’s exactly what is needed. The truth is that for its many advances in other areas of human rights, the UK remains a country of deeply rooted and deeply divisive religious privilege and nowhere is this clearer than in our education system.

Christians enjoy unfair access to education in this country. Christian schools, primarily Catholic and Church of England, are empowered to direct state funds exclusively towards fellow believers and only have to give places to non-Christians if there are any left over. They are also permitted to discriminate in hiring staff, not just religious education teachers but in any subject. This would not be permitted in any other type of organisation, public or private, except, of course, in a church.

In our universities too we see the stain of religious privilege, with our own AHS societies often on its receiving end. The past year has seen a particularly high number of instances on British campuses with the last academic year kicking off with Pineapplegate, where Reading Atheists were forced to remove a pineapple named Mohammad from their Freshers Fayre stall by their union. The Reading society currently faces the threat of closure for refusing to sign their union’s behavioural policy, which includes a prohibition on causing offence.

On the other side of the coin we have seen the march of religious privilege continue unhindered as Bristol University’s Christian Union banned unmarried women from addressing their society, only allowing married women to speak in the presence of their husbands. Such policies should never be permitted in public institutions and yet we allow them to continue under the guise of “religious freedom”.

The status quo in universities continues to mean silencing statements for fear of harmless “offence” and doing nothing to prevent practices that deliberately harm oppressed groups. That this is the case is not because our universities are run by religious fundamentalists, it is because they know that religions will fight tooth and nail to protect their privileges, while the non-religious too often are not aware of where to turn when they see their rights denied.

This is one of the reasons behind the creation of the AHS; to be a national body that can represent students who find the tide of religious privilege washing over them. Universities need to know that when the rights of their non-religious students are ignored we will not remain silent. Universities need to know that when they allow religious groups on campus to use their names and facilities while discriminating against others they will be held accountable. Universities need to know that only a secular approach can provide equal opportunities on campus for all students. This is also why the AHS will be supporting and attending the Secular Europe Campaign March this Saturday 14th September.

This Saturday’s march is the first major secular event of the new term and academic year. It will be attended by many different secular groups from around the UK and is our chance to send a strong signal that there is a real appetite for secularism in the UK. It will take place at 2pm outside Downing St. with more info here. We want to see as many student faces there as possible. Spread the word!

See you there,

Rory

Finding Beauty in Science: My Secular Pilgrimage

I am sat at a pew in Westminster Abbey, filled with a sense of awe and reverence. Unlike the elderly lady to my right, her hands clasped in silent petition, I am not here for prayer. I am, however, here on a pilgrimage of sorts in an attempt to understand the power and limits of science.

Five steps to my left and I will be stood over what remains of Charles Darwin. Four steps forward and I will come face to face with the death mask of Issac Newton. But it will take a keener eye to spot the object of my pilgrimage. Set neatly in the floor between Newton and Darwin is a small, unremarkable stone square about twice the size of my head. This is the nation’s memorial to the greatest British physicist since Newton and the man behind much of my final year of university physics; Paul A. M. Dirac. I have come to pay homage and end up spending a while just sat watching tourists pass the stone. Despite its simplicity this stone square is surely the most effective and beautiful memorial in the Abbey.

Kings, Queens and statesmen have relied on the skill of artists to convey, perhaps fabricate, a sense of their importance and success in life. Dirac’s memorial displays the power and beauty of his life’s work with just the 6 letters that form his most famous equation; the Dirac Equation. This is his own handiwork. To describe in so precise a form the motion and very existence of all fundamental particles of nature, the same stuff of which we are made, is an act of uncommon genius. For Dirac, however, it may also have been an uncommon act of sacrifice; the dedication of his life.

I have with me, to aid my pilgrimage, a copy of Dirac’s Lectures on Quantum Mechanics in which he lays out in just 87 pages the mathematical ideas that lead to his equation. The ordering and logic of Dirac’s prose is impressive and carefully chosen. If asked by a student to clarify a point during a lecture he would simply repeat what he had said, word for word, and continue with the lecture. As far as he was concerned, he had already expressed the idea as clearly as it could be stated.

He was just as inexpressive in his personal life, speaking only when necessary and answering with one word sentences. So private was he that many of his closest friends never knew what his middle initials – A. M. – stood for (it’s Adrien Maurice). In this sense Dirac embodied his own subject of physics with his life. Direct and to the point, never more than necessary.

Wandering further around the Abbey I find myself in Poets Corner, final resting place of Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson and other greats, and can’t help but wonder who chose the better path in life. Certainly, there would be some buried in Poets Corner who would be quite hostile to the work of the scientists buried nearby.

The clock strikes four and the singers of the famous Westminster Boys Choir begin their daily service, their hymns reaching into every nook of the Abbey, exhorting listeners to direct their attention to heavenly matters. “There is no equation for the salvation of your soul,” they seem to say, although such arguments would hold little sway with Dirac, an ardent atheist and humanist.

The dead poets’ concern, however, would not be heaven but the heart; strangled, they might say, by the constraints of scientific rigour. This argument was most strongly made by William Wordsworth, himself memorialised in the Abbey;

Sweet is the lore which nature brings

Our meddling intellect

Mishaps the beauteous form of things

We murder to dissect

Part stanza, part slap, this is a direct attack on those who, like Dirac, dedicate their lives to science. When Dirac uses his equation to dissect the universe, does he also murder it? Is a life lived for science empty of beauty, of true meaning? Was Dirac’s?

The question cuts to the very heart of what has been troubling me since the end of my physics degree three weeks ago and what brings me here to the Abbey; was all this science worth it? Hidden to most visitors, this debate seems to wage in the Abbey itself. The Romantic poets vs the materialist scientists. Can they be reconciled?

Oscar Wilde, a much too outlandish poet to find himself in the sacred vaults of Westminster Abbey, famously declared, “all art is quite useless”. He argued that it was beautiful precisely because of this uselessness, because it was done for its own sake, not corrupted by practical concern. Perhaps the problem of science, and I know this sounds strange, is precisely the fact that it is quite useful. Often very useful. There was never a disease cured by a novel nor a planet probed by a poem but in being useful, science runs a risk that art does not; that it ceases to be for its own sake. This makes it better at attracting research grants but could explain something of why science is seen as an ultimately unfulfilling pursuit by many.

Can science be rescued? Is it possible to find the beauty of art within science? The Bristolian commemorated by that diamond stone and equation could have something to teach us. Although quite literal minded and blunt in his approach to life, Dirac’s idea of science was of science as an art, with mathematics his brush and his paint. He taught students always to pursue beauty in their work and would often reject proposed theories on the basis that they weren’t beautiful enough. His approach to physics was to play with abstract, pure mathematics and see if any physics popped up. His underlying belief, almost religious in its strength, was that the laws of nature should be beautiful and simple.

Dirac’s field, quantum mechanics, is notoriously complicated. Particles are also waves, electrons are said to be in more than one place at a time, even in more than one universe at a time. Obtaining useful results from this often requires crude approximations and simplifications. It seems that at its most fundamental, physics is at its most useless. This may be the spirit in which the heart of science can be rediscovered. Could science pursued for its own sake, the less useful the better, be not just a way to better equations but to rediscover a sense of beauty in the subject?

The choir has finished and I realise I’m at risk of staying for a church service. I perform one quick lap of the Abbey before heading out into the warm evening. I have no definite answers but I wouldn’t expect any certainties when trying to understand a quantum physicist like Dirac. Nevertheless, my secular pilgrimage has given me a glimpse of these Two Tribes in silent war. Could Dirac’s belief in the beauty of physics and science for its own sake provide a bridge between the two?

My head full of thoughts, I leave Westminster Abbey to its more traditional pilgrims.

What The New Archbishop Needs To Do

As I write this, Justin Welby is being enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. At the ceremony are not only leading figures from the Church of England and government but from various other religious groups, from Islam to Hinduism. Humanists are not invited in any official capacity, but there is at least one humanist in the area – I came to Canterbury for a quick interview on Radio 5 Live about the Church’s approach to those of different beliefs. As ever with these things, I didn’t have enough time to say everything I wanted, but there are some very important issues around how the established Church of the UK approached the non-believers among us.

The Church has opened its doors to dialogue but so far this is dialogue only with the religious, excluding the huge proportion of the population (between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on your survey) who have no religion. This is worrying as the Church looks to play a more active role in the provision of public services with a government that’s happy to let them do just that. Currently, the Church runs over 4,800 state schools in England and is free to exclude the non-religious from applying, or save certain places only for the faithful, if a school is oversubscribed.

It is truly astounding that in the 21st Century children can be turned away from public education because of their parents’ beliefs. This also adds to social exclusion, as middle class parents are better able to work the system. The Church also insists on maintaining the historic privilege of having its Bishops in the House of Lords, giving it further undue influence. This is not the sign of a church that values inclusion.

Welby’s choice of a more diverse audience for his enthronement is a nice gesture but an empty one for as long as his Church continues to insist on privilege rather than approaching those of other beliefs with the humility and desire for equality that should mark the Church of Christ it claims to be. I have had the privilege of working with some amazing Anglicans through interfaith and dialogue work, both clergy and lay people- the Church needs to catch up with its believers.

It’s a high hope, for sure, but Justin Welby is presented with an historic opportunity to change the seemingly entrenched state of affairs. I don’t mind if atheists can’t participate in his enthronement service, I do care if we can’t join in public services. It has just been announced that the new Archbishop is to meet campaigner Peter Tatchell, which is a welcome development, as is his outspoken denunciation of homophobia. But we need more.

The Church’s attitude to non-believers in general and the non-religious in particular needs to change.

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How To Think in Five Dimensions and Prove The Big Bang

This will likely be the geekiest thing I ever post but I don’t care. I’ve spent all of today on one particular problem on a General Relativity problem sheet and I have to talk about it.

The problem sheet’s challenge was to mess around with some geometry and see what comes out and lo and behold, the Big Bang came out. This is cool as hell. The process by which you can use nothing but a sheet of paper and a pen to unlock the secrets of the universe has always felt to me like a magic trick. Except of course it’s better than a magic trick. It’s better because it’s true.

There’s another way I think that theoretical physics might just be better than magic and it’s the reasoning behind this post. I’m betting that in revealing my secrets the trick won’t be spoilt but made all the better. I believe this because for me the beauty of physics isn’t simply in the end result but in the process. The twists and turns of both pen and logic are really what it’s all about. So here’s my attempt at getting across the magic trick, the secret to the physics performance. Here’s how to derive the Big Bang.

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I started this morning imagining a sheet of space-time. This means imagining something in four dimensions so the first thing I need to do is explain how to see that extra dimension. I promise it’s not as hard as you might think. When we talk about dimensions we normally mean space- up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards or x,y and z, mathematically speaking. But really, a dimension is just something you can measure. In the case of space you measure it with a ruler but speed can also be thought of as a dimension (and it is, in a thing in thermodynamics called phase space) and so can, say temperature. Imagine running your fingers over the surface of a metal ball with one end of the ball close to a heater. Your fingers will tell not just where each point is but how warm it is. As you run your hand over the ball’s surface your brain is interpreting information in not just the three dimensions of space but in a fourth dimension of temperature. So really, we use multiple dimensions everyday without realising. Imagine dripping multicoloured paint over the ball. Now between your eyes and hands you are taking in five dimensions worth of info, with each point on the ball having colour, temperature and position. If now move the ball closer to the fire so it starts to heat up then BAM we’ve introduced the dimension of time into things and now we can use the time to also describe each point on the sphere, e.g. (light blue, 50 degrees, 5 cm up, 4 cm right, 3 cm forwards, half past 6). Congratulations you can now think in multiple dimensions.

So back to that slice of spacetime. What does it look time? For the most part I just think of it like this-

Imagewhich is only 3D but if I really need to think of that 4th dimension I imagine it have varying colours on a rainbow scale from red to violet. What I’m really interested in is how curvy the slice is. I can talk about this using maths. Bigger numbers mean very curvy, the number 1 means not curvy at all. Now I’m ready to write an equation. I want to show you the equation because its very pretty but don’t worry if you can’t follow the maths too well, I’ll talk you through what everything means.

I’m going to use the letter g to represent curviness and add two little letters to the bottom to show what dimensions I’m talking about. T means time, i j and k mean the x, y and z axis (yes physicists could just say x, y and, but that would just be too sensible). So curviness is written as gij.

My ultimate goal in playing with this slice is to see if it stays still or if it stretches or squashes all by itself. The next step is to talk a walk on my slice and see what happens. I imagine my slice as a great big field with bumps and dips in it.

ImageLet’s run across that field. As you run uphill, especially if it’s steep, you’ll notice you start to lean forwards to keep your balance. The steeper it is, the more you need to lean. Running downhill you now need to lean back to stop yourself falling over. The amount you need to lean forwards or backwards, let’s call it the wobbliness of the terrain, depends on the curviness of your landscape. The wobbliness is an important part of your landscape too so let’s make that into an equation. The symbol for this is Greek. I can’t remember the name for it but it looks like a crane. This has three little letters on it which means it contains even more than our curviness, gij, which only had two. In fact, it contains a few g’s. Here’s what it looks like-

ImageSo now we know how to describe our space-time slice, which is great, but what about actual stuff? Planets and stars and beds and dogs- what about matter? Let’s drop a lump of matter into our space-time and see what happens. The lump will experience what in physics is called “stress”. This just means pushing and pulling due, for instance, to any pressure inside it and is affected by the density of the lump. We’re now going to allow for the possibility that the space bit of our space-time is expanding. We’re going to describe this expansion with the letter a with a=1 meaning we don’t have any expansion and the bigger a is, the faster we’re expanding. Remember, we aren’t assuming space is expanding, just allowing for the possibility. If our slice of space is expanding that means that everything in that slice will be stretched, so the stress on the lump of matter will increase. We denote stress with a T and it looks like this-

ImageThe capital P is pressure, the curly p is density and the u is speed, which depends on a, how quickly our space is expanding.

Now stress, like energy, is conserved. That means you can’t create or destroy it, i.e. the total amount of it can’t change. We can express the idea that the change in stress is zero like this-

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Adding in all of the letters we’ve already work out gives us

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where w is just a constant to do with the temperature of our matter. For cold matter, like the stuff around us, w is zero and we get

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where k is just some constant. For hot matter, like radiation, w is 1/3 and we get Image

Now let’s really look at what is going on in these equations. First of all that mysterious t0. It just represents some unknown time but what happens when t=t0? Well a=k(t0-t0)=0, in other words space has zero size. If a is zero then what about our density? We had

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so if a=0 and we’re dividing by a then we’re dividing by zero- which give us infinity. So there was some time in our space-time slice, t0, when our lump of matter was infinitely dense and concentrated in a tiny point of zero size before it started to expand. That, my friends, is the Big Bang.