Saturday, 30 April 2016

Dreamed-Up Alphabets

The last entry on this blog mentioned Vai.  Sarada complained that this was an unwarranted irrelevance, but a while after writing it I realised that the example makes quite an interesting story in connection with autonomous learning and invention.

The Vai people live in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Almost all languages spoken today in Africa use either Latin or Arabic script.  There are some exceptions, notably Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia and using the Ge'ez script, and Berber languages of North West Africa, which use the Tifinagh scripts.  Coptic, which was originally Ancient Egyptian, uses an alphabet derived from demotic hieroglyphics and Greek, but is now only a liturgical language and is no longer spoken.

Vai, by contrast, uses this syllabary:

Unlike alphabets, syllabaries use one sign per syllable, as the name suggests.  The history of the Vai script is quite remarkable.  It was first written down in the early nineteenth century by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and is said to have been revealed to him in a dream!  This could, of course, merely be a picturesque origin story, but it's entirely feasible that this could have happened.  The Bach flower remedies are another example of a system revealed in a dream and are quite involved and complex.  I feel I should trust the opinion that it did come to him in a dream because the doubts expressed seem to be about not trusting people in an in-group.  It's also difficult to know whether to call the appearance of the Vai script discovery or invention:  did he think it up subconsciously or did he consciously invent it?  If the former, how much is that a revelation and how much is it subconscious invention?  It's similar to the issue of confabulation and false memories, which edges towards Mandela Effect territory.  Whatever else was the case, it's highly likely that Momolu Duwalu Bukele got the idea, consciously or otherwise, from another equally remarkable writing system.

Liberia has an unusual history, and forgive me if you know this because I have no idea what other people do and don't know.  Its history is evident in its flag:

which of course resembles a certain other flag.  In the early nineteenth century, the American Colonization Society established Liberia as an African homeland for free African Americans because they believed their presence in the American South would make slaves there rebel.  This policy was supported by Abraham Lincoln.  Later, other colonies were established in the area which did include freed slaves.  In 1847, the area became an independent republic based on the US constitution.  More recently, Liberia became known for being used as a flag of convenience and had the largest shipping registry in the world.

Due to its connections with North America, members of the Cherokee nation also emigrated there on occasion, and an early Vai inscription was in fact found on a Liberian house belonging to Austin Curtis, who was Cherokee.  This is significant because it so happens that the Cherokee language itself is one of the few Native American languages to have its own script.  Excluding Quechua with its quipu, the knotted strings used for I think accounting purposes, the only languages with their own script there which come to mind are Yucatec Maya, Nahuatl (which is arguably not a form of writing as such) and the Cree syllabary.  There may be others but I don't recall them.

Cherokee is unusual by virtue of the fact that its writing was invented by someone who was previously illiterate, namely Sequoyah.  Here it is in its modern form:

This is Sequoyah.  He was born in the late eighteenth century and invented the syllabary in the early nineteenth.  It was so successful that literacy among the Cherokee soon surpassed that of the European-American settlers around them.  Although he originally intended fot the characters to be ideograms - one symbol per word - he changed his mind and settled on one symbol per syllable, as it is today.  The Vai script has a similar history in that it too used to have ideograms but has mainly dropped them with one or two exceptions.  Latin has a few widely used ideograms today, including "@" and "&", and the numerals we use could also be seen in that way although they're not strictly part of our script as such, being used by peoples all over the world, including Cherokee itself.

Sequoyah developed his script by studying his copy of the Bible, which, being illiterate, he couldn't read.  The script is still used today by the Cherokee.

There are a couple of other examples of illiterate people creating scripts about which I know far less.   One of them is Hmong, a language spoken in parts of China and Indochina.  This is written in a script called Pahawh Hmong:

Once again, this is a syllabary, invented by one Shong Lue Yang, also known as the Mother Of Writing, in the twentieth century.  Living in Vietnam, he was an illiterate farmer and basketmaker living hand to mouth, who probably did see writing at some point.  Starting in 1959, he received a series of visions in which divine twins taught him this writing and commanded him to pass it on to his people, which clearly he proceeded to do.

Finally, although there may be others, there is the Nüshu script, a secret writing by otherwise illiterate women in Hunan province, China:

Nüshu came into existence many centuries ago but nobody knows exactly when except that it was some time between the years 900 and 1600.  Most of the population was illiterate at the time but women learned to write this script, which they used for poetry, and again it's syllabic.  In a sense, like some other forms of communication such as Laadan, it's a specifically female mode of writing.  It was suppressed by the Japanese in their occupation because of the possibility of being used for secret messages, and again later by the Maoists during and after the Cultural Revolution for the same reason.  The last native user of Nüshu died in 2004 although it's not lost, since it's known in academic circles.  I wish I knew more about it, and shortly will.  There's a website here.

The notable feature of all these scripts is that they're all syllabaries in spite of the other writing used where they came to be.  Hmong and Nüshu had ideographic script, namely Chinese characters, used around them and Vai and Cherokee, with alphabets used around them.  To me, this suggests that the "natural" form of human writing is not alphabetic, ideographic or even pictographic but for some reason syllabic - one syllable per symbol.  Also, this has happened at least four times.

Why is this here, on this blog?  Well, to me this is a supreme example of what can be achieved by supposedly uneducated, illiterate people without any formal instruction, at least from other human beings.  Also, given the sources of information, at least two arrived in the human psyche from dreamlike states, at least according to the origin stories.  This shows how there's a sense in which we don't need to be taught to learn how to read and write, although on the whole if we never were we would presumably end up with hundreds or thousands of mutually unreadable forms of writing.  It also illustrates how we can even learn, discover and invent massively useful things in our sleep or at least in non-waking states of consciousness, even if it turns out that the information is from supernatural sources.  That's not a necessary supposition of course, and I prefer to think of this as in those two ways a marvellous instance of how amazing human beings are as a species.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Introduction To Home Education

This coming Monday, I'll be giving a talk on home ed at my church You And Me friendship group,  As I'm aiming for it to be an informative introduction for the general public, I thought I'd also put roughly what I'm going to say here.

The popular American term for home education is homeschooling.  This rarely describes what happens in families whose children's education does not include school as the approach taken in school is oriented towards large groups of children roughly the same age outside the wider community.  Although there are as many takes as families or even children, few resemble classroom learning.  "School at home" does sometimes happen but is unpopular and considered inappropriate and inefficient, and when it happens it's often a phase.  It's not home schooling.

Nor is it really home education any more than education in schools is school education.  Children and adults learn all the time and it would be very difficult to create an environment where humans don't learn.  People even   solve problems and discover things in their sleep.  Much of organic chemistry is based on something a scientist originally had in a dream and the Vai script in West Africa also came to its inventor in a dream, so educational premises could be seen as the inside of a child's head or the whole Universe.  Less flippantly, home education doesn't mainly take place in the home but in all sorts of places:  on shopping trips, walks, visits to grandma, in the park, in places of worship, at youth clubs and basically anywhere children and their carers might go.  On the whole, so-called "home education" takes place in the community, one reason why the fear that it could be used as a cover for child abuse is misdirected.  Some, though, think stressing home is important because they see the home environment as something which is being unfairly stigmatised and distrusted, which they might see, for example, as part of an attempt to oppose family values.

Another important idea to get past is that we are a group apart from the rest of society.  Almost all parents home educate and almost all children are home edded almost all the time.  Five hours of lessons over 200 school days a year and twelve years of school education, makes twelve thousand hours.  Childhood lasts 157 788 hours, so over 92% of a schoolchild's life is spent outside lessons.  Some of that is in school of course but most isn't.  Moreover, almost all children are educated at home full time for the first few years of their lives, and it's been argued that almost everything a child learns is in those few years.  Supposedly we learn 80% of what we know as adults takes place by our second birthdays, about which I'm sceptical but it still expresses an important truth about how people learn.  When you consider that during that time we became fluent in English, much of what else we might achieve later is not that much more of an achievement. It isn't us and them.  Almost all parents home educate, even after the children go to school.  If we're in a shop with a child who tries to take something without paying for it, it's more our responsibility to discipline that child than the police or the shop, and that's a form of moral and legal education.  In a sense, home education is just parenting.  We just carried on doing what everyone else did before their children went to school, adjusting as we went along according to age.  Parents don't just keep pre-school children at home.  They take them shopping, on holiday, to the park and to parent and toddler groups, and the same is true of us.  Also, when parents do take their children on holiday or to parent and toddler groups, they're generally trusted to look after them and there are plenty of other adults around to ensure that they do so, another safeguard against child abuse.

Universal compulsory education has only been around since the late eighteenth century anywhere in the world, and for the English only since mid-Victorian times.  Before, there were dame schools and ragged schools.  Although these have been much maligned, it's important to remember that history is taught by the winners.  Before that, children learned on the job, and although this involved appalling exploitation and wasted potential, it still brought us through from our earliest stone age beginnings to a fully-fledged industrial society.

Responsibility is one motivation for home education.  Few people think twice about feeding, clothing or providing shelter for their own children because we just are responsible for them in this way.  A parent wouldn't expect others to take responsibility for their child in these respects.  Similarly, we  didn't consider it the responsibility of other adults to take care of our children's learning.  That doesn't mean that they shouldn't be taught if the need arose.  Even so, the law states that parents, not schools, are responsible for their children's education, and also according to the law, the school system is an opt-in system, not an opt-out one, a point which is obscured by the fact that most people do in fact opt in, sometimes because they're unaware of the fact.

One very important and valuable function of schools is that they take care of children while parents are doing paid work incompatible with having their own children around, so it's clear that schools will sometimes be needed.  Moreover, we all benefit from people who have been through the school system in all sorts of ways and our society depends on such people.  That doesn't mean, however, that everyone or even most people should go to school.  If they didn't, society would have to be very different from how it now is and parenting would probably have to be more evenly divided and probably also shared with other relatives and neighbours.  Workplaces would also have to be more flexible in their acceptance of children, more people would have to work from home and more people would probably be self-employed.  There would have to be all sorts of changes, but I see most of these changes as good.  Nonetheless, society being the way it now is doesn't stop home ed from happening.

This raises the question of whether home education is time-consuming.  To answer that question I want to assume for a moment that we actually had done school at home.  Going back to the thousand hours a year spent in lessons, we can think about the traditional two-parent family with one home educated child, which however isn't the only kind of family that does this.  A thousand hours spent a year in lessons, which are 365 days a year rather than two hundred, makes two and three quarter hours of lessons a day.  Since there are two parents, dividing this workload between them gets us to one hour and twenty-odd minutes a day per parent.  Add to that the fact that the child gets much more attention than they could ever get in class from teachers and teaching assistants and that not all teaching is input and the situation looks even easier.  This scenario is rather unrealistic though, because as I've said, most parents don't do school at home and they don't do things in isolation, so there will be all sorts of other adult helpers out there among family friends, people running activity days for children and even private tutors if that's considered necessary.  This means the workload really wouldn't be very heavy even with school at home.

As I said. few people do school at home.  Our structure was largely in my head and partly in Sarada's, but not really presented to the children as structure.  What I mainly did was to plan a whole load of possible educational programmes in my head first and wait until the children expressed an interest.  When they did, I could launch them on their way with a few ideas, activities, discussions and the like and because the interest had come from them, they would learn very efficiently due to being highly motivated.  It's also possible to make connections across subject areas more easily, meaning that rarely would such an interaction merely involve, say, geography, science, language or history, but more often all of them at once, again motivated by their interest.  Thus although we didn't follow the National Curriculum, I did have it in my head as a sort of bingo card where I was able to fill in the blanks.  What I found was that topics in the National Curriculum were covered so fast that a year's worth of work would take a maximum of about six weeks, meaning that if I had just followed the National Curriculum I would be twiddling my thumbs most of the time.  This is because there's no need to proceed at the rate of a whole class of children and do so regardless of interest or motivation, which are other factors in rendering schooling quite inefficient.

It's neither necessary to be an expert or a teacher to do this, and it's not required by the law either, although it so happens that Sarada is a qualified schoolteacher.  We are instinctively capable of helping others learn, particularly our own children, and they are instinctively capable of learning, because those two things are part of the human condition in the same way as migration might be for a bird or gathering nectar and spinning cobwebs are for bees and spiders.  We just are capable of doing these things.  Teacher training is necessary and important for the kind of education which takes place in schools, but learning otherwise than at school doesn't have such constraints and happens much more fluidly.  Studies show that home educated children are on average about two years ahead of their contemporaries at school.  They also show that adults who have not been to school are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs, are more motivated and productive in their paid work, are better adjusted psychologically and more active citizens socially and politically.  They also earn more.  If you want to look at it this way, home education is in some ways like private education compared to state education.  It also shares with much private education a full-time learning environment and small staff-student ratios.  Unlike that, it's accessible to even the poorest while giving them the same benefits.

A home edding parent needn't be an expert.  Children learning by osmosis continue to do so.  In particular, with online resources, museums, public libraries and other institutions, plenty of resources are available.  Where parents do teach, it often becomes clear that it's superfluous.  As with many educational situations they are learning just ahead of their pupils and then passing it on to them, and this can sometimes be helpful but it often becomes clear that you should just cut out the intermediary and let the children get on with it.  Where experts are of benefit, they are often available through social contacts because in general adults do use their education in work, so if you don't know someone else very often will.  I offered various sessions during my time, such as natural dyeing, nature walks, cookery, classical languages, German, biology, chemistry, physics and maths.  Other people offered other things such as literacy, music, French, Spanish and pottery, some at IGCSE level.

This brings me to the question of interacting with conventional education.  It has been possible to get into university via testimonial or directly by interview, and to get paid work in similar ways.  Home educated children tend to access higher education earlier or later than children who have been through the school system.  In terms of formal qualifications, there are a number of options.  One is to do IGCSEs, which are the international equivalent of GCSEs and have no coursework element, making them easier to do because of no need for official supervision of the work.  I made a point of splitting the science into three subjects, or more precisely biology and the two others, in order to account for people unable to reconcile evolution with their belief systems.  After a short period, I found that even separating the subjects at GCSE rather than doing simply science only occupied us for a couple of months.  There is also the problem of mistakes in the curriculum having to be taught and the lack of emphasis on scientific method.  Science at GCSE level tends to be about a series of "facts" rather than science itself.

It's often asked how home edders can do science or maths, but these are in fact extremely easy.  Maths in particular is one of the easiest of all subjects to study as it requires no special equipment at all but simply clear thinking.  Something I would have liked to pursue more but lacked the chance to was the possibility of approaching maths as intuitive rather than relying on conscious thinking and methods to arrive at results.  I'm still sure this can be done for various aspects.  Science can require more equipment but it's still possible to get quite a long way by choosing carefully.  For instance, it's possible to make copper sulphate from electrical wiring and a type of sink unblocker, and from this, the principle of exothermic reactions and water of crystallisation can be demonstrated.  If there is any special equipment, it can be borrowed or bought second hand from other home edding groups which have got further than you.  Learning in groups is generally about socialising for the children but they do pick things up quite readily even so.

This still sounds like school, but a popular approach is autonomous education as inspired by John Holt and John Taylor Ghatto.  This involves little or no input from parents and trust that the children will learn as they go along.  This formed a substantial part of our educational philosophy although we were probably more structured than most.  Other influences include Montessori, which we didn't pursue, the Rudolf Steiner approach, based on Goethean thought, and the Trivium, popular among Christian groups.  The Trivium as approached today is based on classical education as found among patricians in Roman times but differs from it in that it doesn't use the Quadrivium and uses grammar, logic and rhetoric arranged chronologically for three stages of education, the first involving the learning of facts, the middle their mental processing and the final the nature of expression and persuasion.  For all I know there are also people who use classical education as such, but I haven't come across them.  This may be more popular in North America.

Motives for home education vary.  In the UK, religion is seldom the reason families choose it although it's quite common among Muslims.  Whatever the faith, the choice often arises from objecting to the values seen to be instilled among children who go to school, and this does sometimes include sex education.  Having said that, those who object to the idea that children are being kept away from school by their parents because they prefer them to be homophobic and transphobic might want to consider how they would feel if things were the other way round, as was the case when Section 28 was in force.  From the late-1980s onwards, when teachers were banned from promoting homosexuality, which was clearly homophobic, and it would be entirely understandable for a child to be removed from school for that reason.

This raises the issue of bullying, which is another reason for home education.  If parents feel that a school will not address it, they sometimes withdraw their child from school.  This relates to the LGBT issue if it's motivated by some form of non-conformity such as gender.  On the subject of bullying, this has been known to happen between all groups at school - of children by teachers, of teachers by children and between staff and parents, and preventing it was one motive we had for making our children aware of their choice to attend school or not and to change that at any time.  Non-neurotypicality or special needs are other reasons parents choose not to send their children to school or withdraw them.  The general idea with all of these involves the thought that parents understand and know the needs of their children better than strangers even if those strangers are educational or healthcare professionals, which opens up another set of concerns regarding choices over healthcare and medicalisation which are too complex to go into here.

Another set of people are those pursuing the continuum concept.  This begins with contact parenting, co-sleeping and breastfeeding which is perceived as long-term by some others.  Many such parents find it feels very unnatural to have the children go to school after they've done that.

People often ask "Is there a problem with socialisation?", to which the flippant answer is "yes, there's too much of it!".  Home edded children are not socially isolated at all.  They are out in the community, they see their extended family, they may go to youth groups such as the guides and the scouts, they have after school clubs, places of worship, gym, dance classes or simply their neighbours.  Within the home ed community there are regular social get-togethers, sleepovers, educational activities pursued together and they make friends at least as readily as other children do. Less prevalent are bullying, cliquishness and anti-intellectualism, which helps both socialisation and other kinds of education, although these can also occur.

It might sometimes seem that this can only be done by people able to rely on a large reliable income or staying out of paid employment, but this is not usually so.  However, it is the case that I have personally lost opportunities due to the situation, although this may be more down to my own attitude than anything else.  

Personally, the situation was as follows.  As a child, I went to a primary school with very large class sizes. Mine had forty-six pupils.  This meant that much of what went on in the classroom was management and discipline rather than learning.  I seem to be unable to perceive what conformity is and even less able to conform,  Consequently, the teacher used to discipline me in various ways, such as locking me in a cupboard all day or making me stand out in the snow in my underwear.  There was also a problem in that none of the content of the curriculum was unfamiliar to me and they didn't teach anything I hadn't already found out years previously.  I was later moved to another school which was much smaller and less problematic and of course later went to secondary school.  The chief benefit of secondary school was that I made friends and was able to have some independence from home life.  Consequently, my view of school education became that it tended to aim very low academically and was a distraction from proper learning.

Sarada's experience seems to have been more on the side of teaching.  She was subject to a lot of workplace bullying when she taught and eventually left school teaching altogether.  Therefore, when we got together, we were both very much against the idea of our children having to go to school if they chose not to.  They eventually decided to go to college at about the age of fourteen, so they did.

I freely admit that another motive of mine for home edding was the fact that I was the children's father rather than their mother, which meant there was an enduring sense of longing and bereavement that I had neither carried nor breastfed my own children.  This is clearly unusual and influenced my decision but at the same time, although the motive of compensating for not being their mother existed, I see it more as something which helped me discover the right choice for them.

Our daughter is now in her second year at university reading for a bachelor's degree in English Literature with Creative Writing.  Due to the fact that she only started formal education a few years ago, she has not undergone the commonly seen steady decline in enthusiasm found in some other students and she has chosen consciously to do a degree rather than it simply being the next stage and what everyone else does.  She's involved in student politics, has a job and lives with her partner of three years.  Our son was able to start college a year early and achieved a lot, but his progress has been waylaid somewhat by succumbing to a critical illness which involved long-term hospitalisation.  It's impossible to know how things would've turned out had they gone to school but we don't regret our decision at all.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Indigo Children

I'm going to try to plough a middle furrow here.  There are people who are very into the idea of indigo children and there are others who regard them as mumbo-jumbo.  I don't really fall into either camp, as usual.

Science fiction, although generally about the present rather than the future, is often quite good at prediction, often with technology and its social consequences.  I often feel that it's slightly spoilt by a tendency to change only one variable, like a scientific experiment.  Just plucking a random example out of the air, Asimov's robot stories tend to be very much set in the mid-twentieth century when they were written with the difference that there are robots with similar intellectual capabilities to human adults.  Change in the real world occurs along many lines at once, so for example we have the influence of social media following on from the advent of the Web at the same time as medical innovations changing the way we look at ourselves, genetic modification, fracking, climate change and a resurgence in religious fundamentalism combined with increasing tolerance of sexual minorities, just to pluck a few things out of the air.  Then again, sometimes there are apparently single changes so momentous that history gets divided into before and after.  9/11 would clearly be an example of this, as would Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web.

One example of such a change depicted in science fiction, but somewhat tangential to the mainstream view of science and technology, is that of special children appearing with super powers, and I've just discussed this elsewhere.  It's found in various other places as well, not always in such a positive light.  

Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life, published in the same year as Clarke's Childhood's End is particularly haunting in this respect.  There's a similar character in Stapledon's Odd John, but the majority of superhumans in that book are basically good, though morally ambiguous from a baseline human perspective.  This moral ambiguity reflects alternative ways of seeing children.

A somewhat similar idea applied to real life is that of Indigo Children.  The name comes from Nancy Ann Tappe about forty years ago, who said that she saw indigo auras around some children whom she expected to be special in the new age to come.  Indigo children are said to be highly intelligent, not compliant with schooling, empathic, strong-willed, having strong innate spirituality, intuition and purposefulness.  They are also seen as strange by others and are described as having a strong sense of entitlement.  I have come across children described as Indigo myself, as it was a popular in the 1990s and 2000s in home ed circles, which considering their perceived resistance to schooling is unsurprising.

It's difficult to mention the idea of a sense of entitlement without seeing it as a criticism, but in this case it seems to be seen as positive.  I don't know what I think about that to be honest, but then again, I don't know what to think about the whole thing,  However, there are other people who do know what they think about the whole thing, and it's not the same as what the indigo children's parents think at all.  Some psychologists take the view that the construction of the concept of these children is a response to the diagnosis of particular developmental issues in them such as ADHD, ADD and autism.  The idea is that parents of indigo children prefer to see them in this way rather than as labelled as in some way defective.  That idea suggests a certain degree of self-assurance on the part of both the parents and the healthcare professionals involved, and also an idea that the current social status quo is in some way the right way to be, or in some way unchangeable.  It is possible that this is the case, of course, but in view of the fact that this society gives the impression of always having been massively dysfunctional, I don't see it this way.  My view of diagnoses such as ADHD and autism is that where they are accurate in terms of criteria, they reflect a poor fit between the cultural milieu and the way the person receiving the diagnosis is, which may or may not be helpful for them. It may be helpful as a source of explanation to them for their difficulties which suggests a way forward, and there's no real need to explain why it might not be helpful.

There is a more significant problem with the idea of indigo children, namely that it sets certain children aside as more special than others.  Many people whose children's education doesn't include time at school would say that schooling simply fails most children both as a means of letting them be children and as a way of enabling them to achieve anything like their full potential.  Hence the criterion above of children who are not compliant with schooling could apply to almost any child in many people's views.  That said, there is a growing issue of various degrees of non-neurotypicality among children recently, in areas such as being on the autistic spectrum, dyslexia, ADD and ADHD.  I would also suggest that gender non-conformity and pathological demand also belong here.  The question of why this issue is growing could reflect increasing recognition of the issues, medicalisation or increasing prevalence.

Just to depart into a somewhat fantastic realm for a while, just suppose that something like the scenario described in science fiction of really "special" children did emerge.  Suppose, for instance, that children clearly began to demonstrate abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis and precognition as a matter of course.  How would the system deal with them?  Would it be able to accommodate or nurture such abilities?  Would it even recognise them?  Or, would children with telepathy and precognition be considered psychotic and medicated in such a way that they ceased to have such abilities?  Or, would it be a case of such children being sidelined and just not being accommodated in anything which would enable them to develop their talents?

Getting back to the real world, these stories and the idea of indigo children, even if they reflect nothing else, communicate the truth that children, in the form of the next generation, will eventually take over the world, and when they do so, they will need to have the adaptability and resourcefulness to find solutions to the problems previous generations have presented them with.  In order for that to happen, they need to be able to develop whatever talents they have and engage with such talents with the world.  If schooling can't find a place for children to do this, it needs to be replaced, because now a utopia has become a pressing need, not something we can even survive as a species without.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

How Can Something Finite Not Have An Edge?

It will eventually become clear why there's a picture of a tardis here.

Somebody just wrote that if something is finite it must have an edge and be sitting inside something else.  The purpose of this entry is to show why this need not be so.

I wrote elsewhere about how probability might measure the physical distance between universes or timelines.  It seems to me that if we are living in a world which is constantly branching, the older branches would be in the way of the newer ones off our timeline, so it follows that the newer branches must be closer.  Otherwise they would cross the older ones and for an instant they would be identical, and that wouldn't happen.  It also seems that the less likely events are, the further away they would be.

There is a problem with this though.  Probability is usually between one and zero.  Apparently calculations in quantum physics sometimes come out with the result that something is infinitely probable, and nobody knows quite what to do with this, but since I don't understand what that's about, I'm going to leave it alone for now.

An event which is certain has 100% probability or a probability of one.  A completely impossible event has zero probability or 0%.  Clearly the probability of certain events depends on what's happened before, so if your house is already on fire and the fire brigade has run out of water, the chances of you dying in the fire are higher than if your house wasn't on fire or the fire brigade hadn't run out of water.  Also, not all events with zero probability are impossible.  If an infinite number of dice were rolled, an event which is impossible because they would be frozen facing in particular directions because of their mutual gravitational attraction unless they were infinitely far away from each other, they would have a particular arrangement of numbers on their faces, so looking from one direction, one might have six facing one, another one, another five and so on, and the probability of that arrangement would be zero but it would have happened, assuming them to be truly random.

If probability varies between zero and one, it looks like the multiverse might be very small and crowded and have a limit to it.  This need not be so though.  It could be, for example, that fifty to a hundred percent probability is one unit, then 25% is two, 12.5% is three and so on, meaning that events of zero probability along with impossible events are infinitely far away.

It's been suggested that space could in fact be like this.  In order to imagine that, consider this Escher picture:

(A print of this can be ordered here).  This is a circular picture whose devils and angels shrink the further away they are from the centre, and although this can't be done in reality, in an ideal such world there would be no limit to the shrinkage and to any one of the angels (devils being angels too), the plane would be infinite.  Moving across it would involve shrinking in proportion to how far from the centre one was, and consequently it could have a limit but still be infinite to its denizens.  This can easily be extended to three dimensions.  One could be in the centre of a sphere twenty metres across, but find that once one has swum or flown five metres from that centre, one was half the size one was at the centre and so on, so even though the surface was clearly visible and you might think you could reach it, it would be impossible.

This is known as hyperbolic geometry and it comes down to parallel lines.  We think of parallel lines as staying the same distance apart, but in hyperbolic geometry the distance between them increases.  This is similar to what happens on a pseudosphere, where apparently parallel lines fan out towards the equator from the poles, within limits:

At first, hyperbolic geometry might seem useless, but oddly it's found a home amongst a few Young Earth Creationists (YECs).  If you believe the Universe is only six thousand years old, there is immediately a problem with the sky.  It can be demonstrated that the Universe is more than six thousand years ago as follows:

The moons of Jupiter orbit it at a known rate and can easily be observed through a small telescope.  Jupiter's distance from the Sun can be known because of how long it takes to go round it, since Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion states that the square of the time taken to orbit the Sun is proportionate to the cube of the mean distance from the Sun, which in turn follows from the fact that we live in a three-dimensional Universe and the force of gravity diminishes as the square of the distance from a mass.

When Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun to Jupiter, it's 300 million miles further away from it than when it's on the same side because of the width of our orbit.  The movements of the four big Galilean moons are delayed by around a quarter of an hour, a thousand seconds, because of the time taken for light to get here from there.  This means light travels at about 300 000 kilometres a second.  Alternatively, if the speed of light is known but not the diameter of our orbit, it can be worked out from that, the speed of light itself being calculated by shining a light at a rapidly spinning mirror and working out how much the beam reflected back shifts if the rate of rotation is known.  Incidentally I've tried this between Elizabeth House in Leicester and Old John in Bradgate park, and the difficulty is getting a clear enough day for it to work.

Having established that, the next stage is to look at how the stars shift against the background over a period of six months, the background being much more distant objects such as galaxies.  In the above diagram, it can be seen that the star will be in front of the object in the background in December from our perspective, and closer to the next object down in June from our perspective.  Trigonometry makes it easy to work out the angles involved and the base of the triangle is already known to be about 300 million kilometres, so distances to nearby stars can be measured.  This is known as the first rung on the distance ladder.

The next one can be worked out by observing Cepheid variables.  Not all stars shine steadily.  Some of them fluctuate in brightness, and the way in which they fluctuate indicates what kind of variable star they are.  The brightness of a Cepheid variable fluctuates in a curve indicated by the graph above, and is determined by the speed of sound within the star, as it involves a shock wave moving back and forth in the star.  This information is not needed to understand that the brightness of the star is directly linked to how long it takes to flash, but it turns out to be because it pulsates at the speed of sound and similar sizes and temperatures of stars have similar magnitudes of brightness.  The closest Cepheids are near enough to show parallax, and sufficiently bright ones can be seen from far away.  Because their real brightness, or "absolute magnitude", can be known, their distance can be known.  This is slightly complicated by the fact that there is more than one type, but the principle remains the same.  This also enables distances to nearby galaxies to be measured.

The final rung in the distance ladder is the rate at which other galaxies are moving away from us.  For a reason I'll go into in a bit, most other galaxies in the Universe are moving away from Earth, and the further they are away, the faster they are moving away.  This can be measured because the light is stretched to longer wavelengths in a predictable manner, so the further away something is, the redder it is.  This enables the distance of all large visible objects to be measured, until eventually they are moving away faster than light, which is why the night sky is black - the light can never get to us from an object travelling faster than light.

It turns out that the light left distant galaxies billions of years ago and is only now reaching this planet.  Consequently the Universe must be billions of years old.  I made this observation to a fundamentalist Christian postgrad biologist housemate once, and she said she couldn't explain it but there was an answer.  It's no good to say it was created in transit because that would mean God was deceiving us, so Young Earth Creationists need an answer as to why this happens.

They find an answer in hyperbolic geometry.  In my humble opinion, they've spelt the word "hyperbolic" slightly wrong, but they aren't bad people because nobody is, and it could also be said that a detail like the age of the Universe isn't very important in everyday life for most people.  Anyway, their solution to the problem is to suppose that space is warped into a shape rather like the pseudosphere illustrated above, but in four dimensions.  This would mean that we are near the centre of the Universe and that time travels more slowly here because of relativity, which in turn means that you can get away with Earth only being six thousand years old and the rest of the Universe being much older, because time passes more quickly here than further out in the Universe.  This is rather surprising and ingenious, but since it places us near the centre of the Universe, it probably isn't true and it isn't really any better than the idea that the Sun goes round us rather than the other way round.  Nonetheless it does illustrate an application of hyperbolic geometry.  

In such a Universe, a spacecraft travelling away from Earth towards the apparent edge of the Universe would never reach it because as it travelled it would shrink, and as it shrank it would move ever more slowly, meaning that it would never get there.  This is one way in which something finite can get away with not having an edge.

Hyperbolic geometry is what you get if you assume parallel lines move apart.  It applies for real in some situations regardless of what YECs think about the Cosmos.  For instance, inside the event horizon of a black hole it would apply because of the warping of space there, meaning that one would be confronted with relentless movement towards the end with a tantalising prospect of the rest of the Universe being visible but unreachable even if it was possible to travel faster than light because of the shrinkage issue.  If, on the other hand, you assume parallel lines converge, you get Riemann geometry, which surprisingly is probably the way real space is.

Imagine the Earth wrapped in bandages.  If you were to have an infinite supply of bandages stowed somewhere outside the Universe which you could constantly call upon to wrap this planet fairly evenly, as you wrapped it, it would become an ever-larger sphere with an ever-flatter surface due to its size.  However, once your layer of bandages was more than a few billion light years thick, you would in fact find it was no longer convex or even flat, but concave. You would end up inside the bandages surrounded by them in all directions, with the ground in all directions away from you as if it was hollow and you were inside it, until eventually you would be trapped inside a cosmic layer of bandages many billions of light years thick.

In fact this would never happen for various reasons.  One of these is that the Universe is constantly expanding in all directions.  Getting back to the idea of galaxies moving away from us in all directions, this sounds at first like cosmic egocentrism, but the real reason this happens is that space is getting bigger, and this is where things get misleading.

Here's a picture of the Hubble Deep Field on which I've doodled a few arrows:

Just to say, the Hubble Deep Field is a photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of an area of the constellation of the Plough less than a hundredth the apparent size of the Sun in which three thousand galaxies can be seen.  It's not unusual except that there are unusually few stars in the way, so that suggests that over the whole sky the same project, if there weren't any stars nearby, would show more than 70 billion galaxies.

The arrows show the directions the galaxies are likely to be moving in, that is, away from each other and away from the Milky Way too.  The distances, on the whole, are getting bigger.  They are sometimes getting smaller because even galaxies orbit something and if the orbit is edge on they will be moving towards us if they're close enough, but on the whole everything is moving away from everything else because space constantly gets bigger.

This is usually when a very misleading image is introduced of a balloon inflating and people are asked to imagine being an ant on that balloon with spots moving away in all directions from her.  The reason this is misleading is that it makes it seem like the Universe is expanding into something.  Whereas this might be the case, it doesn't follow from the description just made that it is, and this is one reason Riemann geometry is important.

What is really going on is that large distances constantly increase.  If that's so, it would be fair to ask why the stars in galaxies themselves don't get more scattered, why planets and suns don't get farther apart and ultimately why atoms don't just get ripped apart by this expansion, which is also known as the Cosmological Constant or Dark Energy.  The answer is that it isn't expanding enough to overcome the attractive forces which pull everything together, although it is expanding enough to make sure that everything won't be pulled together into a black hole.  The Universe will go on expanding forever.  As it expands, from any point in the Universe it's only possible to see as far as the speed of light will allow, because great distances expand faster than the speed of light.  Since nothing can travel faster than light, that means that two bits of matter separated by that distance can't interact in any way.  This distance may be getting constantly smaller.  Some cosmologists believe that it will eventually get smaller than a galaxy, then a solar system, then a planet and ultimately a person, meaning that objects of smaller and smaller size will get ripped apart, including in the end any people who might be left alive at that point.  This is called the Big Rip, but it might not happen.

The question of what the Universe is expanding into may be an improper question because it isn't certain that space is a "thing" at all so much as a relationship between objects which describes how far away they are and what direction they're in from each other.  This graph shows income distribution in the UK from 1979 to 2009:

It would only help to think of this graph as a street of stripy skyscrapers if you were distressed by being in one of the purple ones and preferred not to think about it, or if you were in one of the beige ones and didn't want to think about the people in the purple bits.  They aren't real objects.  Likewise, temperature is a scale but not a "thing" as such, and so on.  It could be that space is merely a combination of angles, i.e. directions, and distances, each expressible as a scale, rather than a container for objects, as it were.  If this is so, the idea of Riemann geometry is roughly this:  There is a maximum distance between two points and once this distance is reached, directions reverse.  You can think of this as a four-dimensional sphere, but ultimately that's misleading because then you might start asking yourself what it's expanding into, and the answer is "nothing".  The expansion merely represents the idea that distances tend to increase, including the maximum possible distance between two points.

One odd consequence of this is that it means that on the whole any sufficiently large object is bigger on the inside than the outside.  Go back to the idea of wrapping Earth in bandages and instead imagine it being contained in ever-larger hollow spheres.  In that situation, each sphere has a smaller surface than its volume would lead you to expect.  If this planet is at the centre of a sphere half the size of the Universe, it would take one and a half times longer for light to get to the surface of that sphere than it "should".  This means that the volume of the sphere concerned is getting on for four times its expected size.  Also, over large enough distances parallel lines converge, meaning that a square is kind of this shape:

and a cube is like this:

There would be some variation and some squares and cubes would be more symmetrical, but all of them would be wonky.  Many of them couldn't be reflected onto themselves.  Also, this applies to all squares and cubes, and in fact all shapes which look regular on a small scale such as spheres, circles, squares and cubes.

The reason space doesn't have an edge, therefore, is that it isn't a "thing", or it may not be.  Temperature and velocity both have limits, but those limits recede in such a way that infinite energy would be needed to reach them.  The same is true of space.  This is confusing but it does at least mean that tardises are kind of real, except for the time travel bit.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Vanishing Point Herbs

This is a literal vanishing point:

By Jakec - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

(Incidentally, who would want to be attributed for a photo which is dead easy to acquire or take like this?  It's not even a proper vanishing point).

The vanishing point is the location in an image using perspective where parallel lines appear to converge to meet, as I expect you know.

Ben Elton used the term "vanishing point" metaphorically in STARK to refer to a situation where the planet could no longer support human life without an artificially constructed environment.  This phrase stuck in my head and it occurred to me that there are various situations which this could apply to.  For instance, there were claims in Germany a few decades ago that it wasn't safe to breastfeed because of the level of dioxins found in breastmilk, and since breastfeeding could be seen as fundamental to human survival - anything else is an  artificial intervention even if necessary, and I say that as someone both of whose children were born by C-section so I'm not being judgemental here - if dioxins were at such a level in the environment, it means you get into a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

So far, so depressing.  However, I'm not saying this is actually true, just that the concept is useful.  Also, I am aware that this is about to be the second post in a row on this blog which is arguing against using particular herbs medicinally.  Here we go then.

You will recognise these:

as hops, Humulus lupulus.  Since I'm from Kent, hops are as familiar to me as apples and they were ubiquitous in my childhood.  When I was about six, I boiled up a decoction in the back garden from hops I found lying around on the road outside my house.  This is the kind of incident you look back on with hindsight so you can say to yourself "See?  Even back then I was always going to be a herbalist", but in fact it's far from inevitable that that was what I was going to do with my life and if I'd done something else, some other incident would come to mind which would illustrate why I was always going to be a hairdresser or something.  I could go into this in more detail but it doesn't really fit this blog.

Hops are of course related to Cannabis and it's therefore hardly surprising that they're psychoactive.  They're also related to stinging nettles, which are quite similar to Cannabis in appearance and uses.  Stinging nettles are a useful source of fibre for textiles, just as hemp is for canvas, hence the name.  Anyway, back to hops.  Cultivated hops are generally bred for bitterness so that they are more efficient in flavouring beer.  In the past, other herbs were used for that purpose, such as rosebay willowherb, Epilobium angustifolium, which as you can see from this image is clearly related to fuchsia (which I used to eat by the way):

By kallerna - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Breeding anything to enhance one feature tends to do so at the expense of others, so hops bred for bitterness are good liver tonics, being bitter, but not necessarily as good for their other purposes.  This generally means that 

Until today, I have never used hops medicinally as a herbalist.  At first sight, they seem to be pretty groovy in various ways.  They're bitters, phytoestrogenic, sedative and help sleep and anxiety, so on the face of it they sound pretty good, but there's a fairly big caveat among all this.  They are contraindicated in depression because they make it worse, supposedly, and in overdose they have a paradoxical effect, like many other drugs, of causing the very symptoms they relieve in therapeutic doses.  Since insomnia is often connected to anxiety and depression, and since there is probably a strong link between the brain chemistry of anxiety and that of depression, that effectively means that for the most part, hops are prima facie pretty useless in those respects.  This is what I mean by a vanishing point herb.  The herb is supposedly useful for the very conditions which people with problems for which it's contraindicated tend to have as well as those conditions, so it's neither use nor ornament.

I am prone to depression and anxiety, so if I wanted to test hops in this respect, I would make a good subject provided I had sufficient perspective to recognise that my mood might be contributed to by the action of those herbs.  I have a hypothesis about hops I wanted to test.  I suspect that they are not across the board depressant, but have actions which are mistaken for depression, in two respects.

Tearfulness can easily be mistaken for depression, and a lot of the time depressed people might cry a lot too.  However, crying is also, to my mind, often the excretion of emotion - catharsis.  If you can cry, it's a safety valve which actually helps you to overcome depression.  The analysis of the composition of emotional tears, as opposed to the kind of tears you get from, say, cutting onions, reveals that they are different.  In particular, for some reason they are high in manganese, to the extent that they have been known to stain contact lenses pink, which you might think would help.  Here is an example of a manganese compound, manganese (II) chloride:

I think that it's possible that tearfulness has been mistaken for depression here, because hops are phytoestrogens, and oestrogens can make it easier to cry.

The other reason I think this may have been misjudged is that it may well make many people's depression worse, but like many drugs this reflects sexism in the testing process.  This happens a lot in pharmacology when drugs are tested on exclusively male animals.  The majority of these animals are also of course non-human, which doesn't help either, but women experience more adverse drug reactions than men do, or at least report them.  Since women get sick and men die as well, this may not be so, but it would certainly make more sense if it turned out the difference was due to inadequate testing on slightly more appropriate subjects, viz. female non-human animals.  Obviously they do go on to test them on humans but women are also under-represented in clinical trials.  The reason for this is that there is more short-term temporal variation in female physiology than in male, or at least this is understood to be so.  This fact has also, incidentally, been used to explain man flu.

When men are given an oestrogen, it apparently makes them depressed, among other things, all negative.  When women experience an increase in oestrogen levels, it may or may not cause depression, depending on various factors including what oestrogens are involved.

I have just taken around 50% more than the highest recommended dose of Humulus lupulus and I am clearly not feeling down in any way right now even though I have a cold, was already tired and there are various depressing things happening in my life.  I think this suggests that the female brain is not depressed by hops, but the male is, or at least that the male brain is more depressed by them than the female one, and the reason people think it is may be sexist drug testing and misinterpretation of "symptoms" which are not only not indicative of depression but aren't even problematic, again due to sexism.

Back to the idea of vanishing point herbs though.  Here's another one:

By MPF - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

These are juniper "berries", which are of course used in gin, which has itself been used medically in a manner I won't go into here.  Juniper is an unusual plant in several ways.  Firstly, human food and by extension medicine from the vegetable kingdom is generally from flowering plants, which reflects our evolution as primates after the appearance of that type of plant.  Secondly, this is an example of a non-flowering plant which seems to produce fruit.  A closely related plant I do use a lot is yellow cedar, Thuja occidentalis, which is not eaten as food as far as I know.  Juniper is also, again as far as I know, the only example of a spice from a non-flowering plant.

Juniper "berries" are not berries but cones, like pine cones.  Conifers don't really produce fruit as we understand it, although the distinction can be rather academic as they clearly do produce plant organs which contain seeds, as with yew berries.

Juniper berries are diuretic because at therapeutic doses they induce mild inflammation in the kidneys, which increases blood flow to the kidney and therefore, ideally, more urine being filtered out by the kidneys.  That said, one of the important functions of the kidneys is to reabsorb urine rather than produce it, which sounds counterintuitive until you realise that damaged kidney tubules tend to produce excess urine because their epithelium has healed to less specialised epithelium.  There are enough reasons for diuresis, to be sure, but if there are already kidney problems it generally doesn't make sense to me to do something else to irritate them.  Consequently I never use juniper berries, mainly because of the same "vanishing point" effect as hops, except that this time it doesn't look like it's rescued by the possibility of sexism in the research.  Again, it's an example of a herb whose use is often ruled out by the fact that it may cause problems for the very type of person it's meant to help.

Apart from juniper and hops, I can't think of other examples of "vanishing point" herbs.  On the whole, the herbs I use I believe in, but cognitive dissonance would lead me to do so, wouldn't it?  Another question is of which herbs are actually completely ineffective because they don't do very much, and I'm pretty sure I can think of an example of that too, but if I mentioned it that would take away the placebo effect, so I won't be doing that!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Endangered Herbs

One enquiry or request I get a lot is for Hydrastis canadensis or Goldenseal, which is this plant:
It's in the Ranunculaceae, and I'm not terribly keen on using plants in that family, which also includes buttercup and black cohosh, because all of them are somewhat poisonous.  Paracelsus established an important doctrine of toxicology, which was that it wasn't the poison that was poisonous but the dose.  With the exception of carcinogens, there are safe doses of all toxins, and since they are toxic because of their effect on the body it often turns out that they have useful actions at lower doses.  For instance, cayenne or chili pepper is a useful circulatory stimulant but if you drank two litres of Tabasco sauce it could kill you because it would cause so much vasodilation that the heart wouldn't be able to push blood round the body any more.  The ratio between the dose of an agent needed to kill someone and the dose needed to have a positive effect is called the "therapeutic index", and in herbalism at least, the ratio should be at least ten to one.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and contemporary Western herbalism differ in this respect because the plant remedies used by the former tend to be fairly toxic, or perhaps "active", by the standards of the latter.  Western herbalism nowadays tends to use the likes of reflex actions brought on by taking the remedies more, such as the bitter, sour and sweet reactions and the soothing expectoration of a mucilaginous herb which soothes the digestive and by extension the respiratory system.

Consequently I'm not enormously happy about using herbs which are poisonous in even fairly small doses.

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Another example of this is Cimicifuga racemosa, now known as Actaea racemosa, black cohosh, which when I take it just somehow feels toxic and damaging, and which is in the same family.  Of course a feeling is not enough to base such a judgement on, but throwing up after taking it and spending the next day in bed feeling like death warmed up is, particularly when I am not generally a puky person. It'll be no surprise that it's also in the buttercup family.

Even so, it's not the toxicity of Hydrastis canadensis which bothers me.  There are plenty of good herbs which are fairly poisonous but still useful, such as deadly nightshade, It's a frightening sounding herb and I've never used it myself but it's potentially good for all sorts of things, in tiny doses of course.

My objection to goldenseal is not its toxicity but the fact that it is rare, endangered and harvested unsustainably from the wild.  Its rhizome, the part used, grows about an inch a year, and it's difficult to cultivate.  This more or less means it has to be uprooted and it won't grow back.  All of its actions are replaceable by much more common and more sustainably sourced herbs.  

It's well-known for containing berberine, the substance whose structural formula is depicted above, which is naturally also in barberry - Berberis vulgaris:

Berberis species, of which two are used in medical herbalism, are more distantly related to buttercups but still in the same order.  It's so common I can take a rather blurry photo of another species, Berberis aquifolium, from where I'm sitting now:

This is of course called Mahonia rather than Berberis vulgaris, and the vulgaris part of the name means common, but both species are pretty common, easily cultivated and if you want to go down the route of thinking that isolated active constituents are all that herbalism is about, there's your berberine.  Berberine is antifungal, lowers blood glucose (along with a load of other things which do the same, notably onions) and can correct cardiac arrhythmias, among other things.

I never use Hydrastis canadensis because it's endangered.  Whether it's useful or not, it can't be used ethically or prudently.  It's mined from the environment in the same way as the likes of cod are overfished, and it's not responsible to use it.  This is what I tell everyone who asks for it.

That's another thing of course:  people ask for it.  I am of course entirely open to the idea that just because I happen to be a herbalist, even an experienced one, doesn't mean I know what's best for my patients, but this is the usual story of people looking something up on Google and deciding it's what they need from biassed write-ups on sites trying to sell them stuff.  That's not what herbalism is about.  Whereas it's important to respect the opinions of patients, I would respect them a whole lot more if those opinions were based on their personal experience or the experience of people with broader first-hand knowledge rather than something they read on the internet.  I do have a great deal of respect for supposed "lay" opinion, and in some ways a herbalist is just a nexus for tips picked up by her patients that she can pass on to other patients, but those tips need to be reliable and properly tested and checked.

I've mentioned this issue before, but it bears saying again.  Hydrastis canadensis, like many other rare herbs from distant sources, may be a "Veblen good" in economic terms.  A Veblen good is a commodity whose price increases with its price:  the more expensive it is, the more people want it.

By Periodictableru - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

  Another example of a Veblen good is platinum.  All the platinum that has ever been mined in history fused together would probably be just big enough to make into a solid armchair-shaped and -sized block.  Consequently it's sought after and makes good jewellery.  If you are going to buy someone a platinum wedding ring, the more expensive the better.

Hydrastis is another such good, and there are plenty of others in herbalism.  Veblen goods include status symbols and in the case of herbalism, there is actually an argument for going along with the idea of Veblen goods because the more expensive medicine might have a stronger placebo effect.  However, it would also be nice to be able to uncouple the placebo effect from the materials and procedures associated with them and just use it as such.  Then again, the efficacy of herbal remedies does exist besides their placebo effect and herbs generally are ideally free from the commodification and intellectual property issues associated with pure drugs.  Consequently, when people want Hydrastis I will always say no, because wanting Hydrastis is entirely foreign to the spirit of herbalism at its best.

I was going to say something about multi-level marketing at this point but that can wait for another day.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Gravity Waves

It was announced yesterday that gravity waves had finally been detected.  This surprised me since I understood them to have been picked up in 1969, but presumably that was a false alarm.  

This reminds me of the "detections" of planets in the 61 Cygni and Barnard's Star systems which occurred about the same time which turned out to be the telescope lenses getting polished and put back wonky. Nonetheless it may be the real deal this time.

One of the surprising things about the coverage in the media was that someone said that even the simplified version was hard to follow.  This puzzled me.

Just briefly, the "chirp" detected by LIGO, a pair of detectors in North America, seems to have been the result of two black holes, each thirty times the mass of the Sun, colliding with each other at half the speed of light a billion light years away. The conversion to sound I heard, which was also speeded up, reminded me of two billiard balls bouncing off each other.  Bearing in mind that space and time are warped by mass, massive objects make dimples in space like the feet of pond skaters or other small objects floating on still water. If two such objects collided, ripples would result and those ripples are gravity waves. Objects which are in the path of gravity waves will shrink and stretch very, very slightly, but this is hard to detect because rulers, that is measuring devices, of most kinds will also shrink and stretch go the same extent, so they're hard to measure. LIGO is the most sensitive measuring device humans have ever made and is affected by such things as logging many kilometres away and cars bumping along nearby roads, so they are in remote areas and there are two because this allows errors to be cancelled out. It was expected that the waves, when first detected, would be hard to pick up against the hubbub of everything else which was going on at the same time, but it turns out to have been really clear.  They use a split laser, and I am going to take a guess here that they use interferometry although I don't know. They are V shaped devices several kilometres long.  Here's one arm of the Hanford LIGO:
By Umptanum - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gravity waves are interesting for several reasons. One is that they were predicted to exist by Einstein, so they confirm further the theory of general relativity. Another is that almost all astronomy has been carried out using electromagnetic radiation up until now, that is, the likes of radio waves, X-rays and light, although neutrinos and various types of cosmic rays have also been used.  Unlike electromagnetic radiation, gravity waves can get through anything, so the dark dust clouds which, for instance, make it impossible to see anything on the other side of the Milky Way or beyond that to the edge of the observable Universe, will not be a problem. Also, it will be possible to see things which happened !any aeons ago soon after the supposed Big Bang happened.  Also, just as there are different radio frequencies and colours of light, there may also be a range of gravity wave frequencies. However, really good gravity wave detectors would have to be built in space where they can be huge and there will be less interference from stuff happening on Earth, although there are plans to build a few more on this planet first.

All that seems quite simple to me, but apparently not to other people, and this is where my problem emerges. Although I am unemployable for reasons I don't understand but appear to involve getting far enough in the application process to get an interview and may involve my tendency to spread myself too thin, I have no trouble getting all this and I do have trouble understanding why other people don't get it so easily. I rejected the notion of intelligence long ago because it seemed elitist.  In any case it does seem to me that spending enough time concentrating on something will lead go most people understanding it, or having it explained in the right way will and so on.  The world of thinking is not plagued by the same kind of cantankerousness and resistance as the physical world is, so there is nothing similar to dexterity or physical strength in it which makes things in some way ultimately and intractably hard to understand.  Consequently, when someone doesn't grasp something like this, I see the issue to be just that they haven't spent enough time or energy on trying to. This kind of thing does apply to me sometimes in the world of intellect. For instance, I simply can't be bothered to put in the work required to discover how sports or Gadhlig work, and so I don't. If I was interested enough or it was for some other reason important to me to get to grips with them,  I would do so. 

By Olympics_2012_Women's_75kg_Weightlifting_(2).jpg: Simon Qderivative work: Materialscientist - This file was derived from  Olympics 2012 Women's 75kg Weightlifting (2).jpg:, CC BY 2.0,

On the other hand, I am never going to be strong enough to lift a seventy-five kilo weight over my head or run 100 metres faster than Usain Bolt. Those are different kinds of problems that are intractable to almost anyone.  Knitting, for me, also falls into that category.
This may of course merely be due to the fact that I don't recognise my own strengths and weaknesses.   However, it's also substantially to do with the time I've spent doing particular things which are unusual, and the age at which I did them has made them second nature to me.  It may also be that, given that I don't know my strengths and weaknesses, I don't really understand it at all but only think I do.  This is the problem with being isolated from an academic community, and it also suggests that the idea of some kind of superhuman genius working or thinking in isolation is incoherent.

There is nothing wrong with concentrating on other things than the likes of astronomy, theoretical physics, philosophy, comparative linguistics and so forth.  Being able to do other things is very useful and it is in fact one reason I decided to become a herbalist.  I wanted to be able to do something practical and useful.  However, it's also a little disturbing that people can't seem to understand something as simple as General Relativity.  It's not like quantum mechanics, which most people who kind of understand it say that if you think you understand it you probably don't.  General Relativity can be summed up quite straightforwardly as "Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve," as John Archibald Wheeler, who worked with Einstein, put it.  These things have a kudos to them which makes them seem special or intellectual, like rocket science, which is again not really that hard.  

Brain surgery, on the other hand, really is hard because it involves fine motor skills.  I made a model of the human brain about as detailed as the above picture when I was nine, including the sulci and gyri, i.e. the crevices and bumps, which was immediately thrown away by my teacher at the time of course, but that's not the point.  I have some cognisance of the anatomy of the human brain, meaning that in theory I might know which bits of an exposed brain in front of me do what, but actually cutting into one with a scalpel or whatever is of an order of difficulty akin to the dizzy heights of knitting.
There is also such a thing as emotional intelligence.  I don't know whether that applies to me or not for the usual reasons.

Cutting through all that thicket of overthinking though, I am confronted with at least the possibility that I may have an aptitude for understanding gravity waves or whatever, and that other people tend to lack that aptitude.  I find that though very worrying, because it might mean, for example, that there is something out there vital to the survival of the human race which the general population really can't understand sufficiently to take into consideration or take action to maximise the chance that we will in fact be able to continue to exist.  It's a fact that gravity waves are dead easy for me to comprehend, but it's also a fact that people not comprehending gravity waves is about as hard for me to comprehend as it seems to be for them to grasp the original concept.  If this is true, and I would also want to point out that just as learning disability is not a character flaw, intelligence of the kind I am often seen as having is not a virtue either - apart from anything else it probably stops me from being gainfully employed, but if it is true, it makes me feel frightened and lonely.  It would mean that there would be a heck of a lot of stuff I couldn't share with anyone, for example, and that I would have great difficulty making myself understood.

Therefore, I am highly motivated to find a way to convince myself that this is either untrue or doesn't matter.  All of that stuff, to me, is more important than the apparently important scientific discovery I've been talking about.

I just really hope I'm stupid or ignorant, and those can be good things to be.