Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Greek silver lining

It seems possible that the US dollar might have reversed its long slide in value against the Euro. Greece, a Eurozone member, is in the news because of public unrest against austerity measures, after seriously blotting its copybook previously by falsifying data sent to the European Central Bank (ECB) and other authorities. This has adversely affected the Euro because of worries that a constituent country might be setting itself up for default on its sovereign debt.

But, of course, a lower rate of exchange for the European currency is a good thing. It makes European exports to the world’s largest consumer economy, the USA, easier. It makes imports, not just from the US but from many other countries, such as China, whose currency is pegged to the dollar, less attractive.

A decline in the Euro against Sterling will discourage shopping trips to Newry and will mean that Irish consumers will spend more at home.

Notwithstanding the perfidy of the Greek Department of Finance, there is little real fear that Greece will, or will be allowed to, default on its commitments to the extent that the whole European monetary system is irrevocably damaged. In the meantime it is possible that Hellenic fiscal management misdemeanours might have provided something of a silver lining for the other members of the Euro club.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The giraffe - a magnificent animal

New arrivals

Both Dublin zoo and Fota wildlife park have had newly born giraffes during the last few months. This will gladden the heart of anyone who is at all familiar with these magnificent animals. Their grace and power is only matched by the wonder they inspire for what can be achieved by the evolutionary process.

The giraffe seems to be a docile creature but its sheer size means that, apart from the lion, it has no serious predators. Even he, or far more likely she when it comes to hunting, the much vaunted occupant of the top of the wilderness food chain, is very respectful of the tallest member of the animal kingdom. A kick from a giraffe can kill. To defend its young in the wild the mother will place the calf underneath its body where its legs act as barriers to attack. While this can be an effective technique it is not perfect. Only about 50% of calves born reach maturity.


Its neck is, of course, this animal’s defining visible characteristic, but it also has very long legs. The combination results in the ability to feed in the higher reaches of trees, above almost all of its competitors for this type of food. Evolution is responsible for this state of affairs and it is nothing short of mind boggling to contemplate how it has come about. Individual giraffes did not stretch themselves to gain increased height that they could pass on to their offspring, although a certain Chevalier de la Marck, who pre-dated, and helped pave the way, for Charles Darwin in the study of evolution thought that such a thing was possible. Indeed he and his followers believed that it was the only way it could work. Later writers have pointed out that this would mean that an individual who had a leg amputated and who afterwards became a parent would have at least the possibility of producing a one-legged son or daughter.

The gene theory of inheritance, discovered by the Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, showed how the process really worked. Over many generations, taller giraffes that were born as the result of random genetic mutations survived to the point where they were able to pass on their genes, including the gene that defined tallness, as they produced young, while their shorter siblings and cousins did not. Time, lots and lots of it, is an essential element of this progression, as is the rate at which the animals reproduce. The gestation period of the giraffe, at significantly more than one year, makes the evolutionary change all the more remarkable.

More ways than one

There are always in nature different strokes for different folks. The other animal that has had its eye on the leaves at the tops of the trees is the elephant. Evolution solved its problem by giving it a long proboscis, or trunk. The solution in this case meant arranging for the food to be brought down to the point of delivery, the mouth, for processing, while the giraffe had the point of delivery repositioned to achieve the same result. The swan is another example of this answer – its long neck allows it to feed off the bottom of many of the waterways it inhabits while its body floats on the surface, whereas its relation and frequent companion, the duck, is happy to dive for its food.

Nature has had much more to do in the case of the giraffe to make it a viable species than provide it with long legs and an extended neck. Its overall height has severe consequences for the ability of its cardiovascular system to do its job of delivering blood to its extremities and making sure it stays there for as long as it is needed. Firstly, the giraffe has a very large heart – much larger as a proportion of its body weight than any other animal. In the case of the upper neck there is a complex series of valves that mean blood will be retained in this location when the head is lowered, while at the lower reaches the legs and lower body have a thick, tight-fitting covering of skin which is there to contain blood that would otherwise simply burst out through the blood vessel walls if the same pressure was present in any other animal.


While the giraffe is adapted for feeding high up in its habitat and does this superbly, even elegantly, things are not so agreeable when it comes to carrying out certain other functions that are also essential for survival. Foremost among these is drinking. Lapping water from a pond or stream means spreading out the front legs and lowering the neck in way that is ungainly and obviously stressful for the individual. It also seems calculated to place the animal in a highly vulnerable position in the event that Ms. Lioness happens to be in the vicinity. Here evolution has also provided at least a partial solution. It turns out that the giraffe has the capacity to store large amounts of water in its body so that the number of occasions it finds it necessary to drink is minimised. This has the beneficial side effect of allowing it to live for long periods in areas where water is scarce.

Evolution’s outcome with regard to the physiology of the giraffe is as noteworthy as its development of the cognitive facility in humans.

The giraffe is altogether a truly remarkable animal. A trip to Fota or Dublin zoo to see them is well worth while, especially now that there are new, native-born, additions to the families.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reports of the death of philosophy are exaggerated

In his latest book, “The Grand Design”, the Cambridge professor and author, Stephen Hawking, has declared that “…philosophy is dead”. That seems a bit, um, final, particularly as some of his own work, especially that related to so-called black holes, those regions of space where matter is believed to be so densely packed together that the gravitational forces thus generated will not even allow light to escape from them, is some way from attaining the status of a theory that can be tested by experiment. Hawking originally held that all information about black holes was lost due to their extreme density, but in 2004 he changed his mind and began to argue that certain information could, in fact, escape from them.

In other words, at best black holes are imperfectly understood. They are postulated to exist towards the macro, or very large, end of natural phenomena. At the other extreme, at the micro level, when consideration is given to how atoms are held together, scientists are really little better off. The classic model of the atom, which those of us who did science subjects at school were presented with, has a nucleus which is surrounded by one or more electrons kind of rotating around it, in something like the manner of the planets orbiting the Sun. But this runs into serious difficulties when it is realised that the electromagnetic forces that govern the behaviour of the components of any atom are nothing like the gravitational forces that keep the Solar System intact.

As has been pointed out by David Deutsch in his book “The Beginning of Infinity”, this explanation could not work at all because “…even gravitationally bound objects are, in fact, spiralling towards each other, [but on a time scale that is measured in eons], while the corresponding electromagnetic process [the mutual attraction of the positively charged nucleus with the negatively charged electron] would result in the destruction of all atoms in a fraction of a second”.

According to Deutsch, “…atoms could not exist at all according to classical physics”.

So how are they explained? Not in anything like a definitive manner, it turns out. Deutsch has put forward an hypothesis that is based on the latest work in quantum physics. This involves the existence of a multiverse, which is a collection of parallel universes, but he is careful to acknowledge at the start of his book that this explanation is far from enjoying universal acceptance among practitioners in the field. In fact it is controversial.

To me, all of this indicates that, in terms of things such as black holes and an explanation for the true formation of atoms, thinkers are really only at the stage where they can come up with hypotheses for testing against reality, to be modified or rejected outright if the evidence eventually does not allow them to be sustained, all of which is in accordance with the scientific method.

Which is exactly what the philosophers of antiquity did. When Plato and his colleagues put forward the idea that all matter was made up of four elements – air, fire, earth and water, they were simply starting the process, using the knowledge and methods of observation that were to hand, that was modified and added to by others in a cumulative manner throughout scientific history. This includes Ernest Rutherford, when he came up with his planetary model of the atom described above, in 1911.

On this basis, Stephen Hawking, far from being able to support his assertion about the death of philosophy, is himself one of the foremost modern proponents of it. In other words, science and philosophy are inextricably linked, and have always been so. In fact, in Isaac Newton’s day, when he was musing about the nature of gravitation by, reputedly, reflecting on the convergence of a falling apple with the top of his head, and co-inventing the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, and working out his laws of motion, among other things (one of which was attempting to find the formula that would turn base metal into gold), the work he did was referred to as “natural philosophy”. This later came to be known as physics.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why you should become an organ donor

Following my letter in the Irish Times about the picture of Brian O’Driscoll, Michaela Morley and The Heineken Cup, I was contacted in the nicest possible way by Temple Street Children’s University Hospital. They’re naturally pleased with the fact that the Irish Times picture has highlighted the work they do.

Michaela, the six-year-old in the photo, is from Mayo. She attends Temple Street three times each week for dialysis. One can only imagine what a kidney transplant would do for her quality of life.

So I’ve decide to sign up. I have requested an organ donor card from the
Irish Kidney Association. I intend to sign it, have my wife (next of kin) sign it and then carry it with me at all times.

You should too.

Temple Street Chidren’s University Hospital can be reached
here. You should visit them as well to see how you might be able to help.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Primo Levi, and my belief

The success of the World Atheist Convention, held at the start of this month (June 2011) in Dublin, makes it appropriate to consider the nature of belief. Thanks to a recommendation by Claire Keegan in the book section of the Irish Times, I read the account by Primo Levi of his time in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, called “If this is a man” or, in the USA, “Survival in Auschwitz”. It’s a short book and, although it tells a story of incredible cruelty, both in terms of its scale and of the suffering that was inflicted in individual cases, it’s written objectively, with some humour and with no trace of self-pity on the part of Levi. He was a young man at the time, in his 20s, and he only survived because, apart from possessing a high degree of resourcefulness and luck, he was Italian by birth and residence and was taken by the Nazis late in the war. At that point in time they were, temporarily at least, more interested in slave labour than in genocide. He had been born into the Jewish tradition. His survival is fortunate for us too, because the book is one of the most important accounts of what happened during this infamous period in human history when so many, many others did not live to tell the tale, in any form.

After his liberation by the Russians at the end of the war Levi eventually returned to his native Turin, to the apartment where he had been born and in which he was to live out the rest of his life. He had qualified as a chemist and, as well as writing, practiced his profession in his home town. There is evidence that he suffered from time to time with depression, and this is hardly to be wondered at given his experiences.

Controversy exists over his death, which was as the result of falling from a landing in his apartment block, in 1985. Nobody saw what happened to cause the fall. Even though no suicide note was ever discovered, an inquest found that he died by his own hand. The whole question is discussed in detail in an article that was written for The Boston Review by Diego Gambetta. This is a long, closely argued and well written piece. At the end of it one is left with the clear understanding that there is no definitive evidence either for suicide or against it.

That brings us into the realm of belief. Those of us who would seek inspiration in the triumph of the human spirit, for example as demonstrated by Levi’s accounts of how he dealt with his travails and his determination not to allow them to leave him all bent and twisted afterwards, would want to believe that he did not kill himself. I contend that we are, under the circumstances, entitled to have this belief. For me, then, the reality is that Primo Levi died as the result of an accident. But there are caveats: I can only hold that as fact for as long as no irrefutable, or even strong, evidence to the contrary appears. Apart from anything else, a failure to acknowedge evidence against what I might like to perceive as truth would mean that I was fooling myself, and that realisation would be far more unsettling than the demolition of any ideal I might like to hold on to.

I do not have the right to insist that any public behavior that depends upon my version of unverified events is written into the laws of the land. Above all, it would be terribly wrong of me to attempt to impose this belief on others, or to present it to children or impressionable adults as an indisputable account of what happened.

Belief in anything in the absence of direct evidence is, truly, a private matter. Authority figures who insist otherwise are doing a great disservice to the people they are in a position to influence and, because we have a democratic system and said influenced people have votes, by extension to the rest of us.