& FRANS PAGES
OCCASIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHTS
THE CRIMES OF OUR ANCESTORS
original article was by Matthew Syed, and appeared in the Sunday Times -
it is reproduced without anybody's permission.
Pretty much all the most vivid memories of my childhood involve my dad. Handsome and charismatic he came to the UK from Pakistan in 1961 to study law and met my mum, a red-haired girl from Wales. Both families were against the marriage, not least because of what it meant for the children. “They will be half-caste,” Mum’s aunt exclaimed, horrified. Thankfully for me and my siblings, my parents rejected the advice, got hitched, and are still together more than fifty years later, living in a suburban semi in Reading where they have been since 1972; the house in which I grew up.
Dad has not been in the best of health, struggling with so many conditions that we stopped keeping score. He has been in and out of hospital, most recently undergoing a heart operation. I was with him at The Royal Berkshire Hospital when he surfaced after the op, and I often think about that conversation. We chatted about the Test Match at Lords the day before, then I put Yes Minister, his favourite programme, on the iPad. He was still a little groggy but he laughed – full belly laughs – at the antics of Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey.
Dad has been on my mind a lot in recent days. As issues of empire and colonialism dominate the headlines, as statues become the locus for clashes, and as popular culture gets dragged into this tug of war, it is more important than ever to have a mature discourse about British history and race. This is worth doing not merely to enhance mutual understanding, but to pull the rug from under extremists on both sides who are weaponising these issues for their own political ends.
It is sometimes difficult to
convey the love that many immigrants have for our nation. To describe my
father as a patriot is to be guilty of understatement. That is not to
say that he is unaware of the atrocities committed in the age of empire.
As someone who grew up in India during the Raj (he left for Pakistan
after partition), he knows only too well about the deadly famines, the
Amritsar massacre and the crimes of the East India Company. Colonial
atrocities trip off his tongue like Waterloo, Trafalgar or Dunkirk might
for an indigenous Brit. He also speaks eloquently, sometimes painfully,
of the racism he suffered in his new home.
Dad’s experience of racism cast a long shadow. A man with a keen brain and attitude, he worked his socks off as a civil servant and spent free time completing diplomas to expand his mind. His problem was that he couldn’t secure promotion, something that crushed him. I recall the attrition on his face, the sense that he was butting his head against an invisible obstacle. Eventually he studied for an MSc, secured a job in academia and worked his way up to a professorship. This was a tribute to his drive, but it also meant that he travelled, staying in student digs and missing large chunks of his children’s lives.
Why didn’t these experiences destroy his love for Britain? Why didn’t he become bitter, even resentful? The answer is, I think, both subtle and profound. As an immigrant he was all too aware of the racism and sectarianism that existed in other nations. He grew up as a Shia Muslim in a majority Hindu nation. His family lived in fear of persecution even before partition. He knew of the atrocities which had been perpetrated in the name of religion throughout India’s history, from the 7th century onwards, persecution that continues, in various forms, to this day. He knew of the bubbling tensions between Sunnis and Shias within Islam itself. A widely read person he knew of apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow laws in America, tribal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. He was also painfully aware of the corruption and nepotism that has long been integral to kin-based societies (and remains so today). Black and Asian people may have faced barriers in the UK, but the nation was less sectarian and more meritocratic than almost any other.
The point is that if history is about anything, it is about context. Isn’t this what is so conspicuously missing in today’s debate? The Atlantic Slave Trade is a good example, an episode that is crucial not merely for understanding our past, but our present. I agree with those who say that schools should teach how Britain dominated that sordid industry, the horrors of the Middle Passage – the journey across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas or the Caribbean – the mutilation and rape of innocent people, along with the scientific racism that provided a pseudo-moral justification for the crimes of naked economic self-interest. I imagine I am not alone in having watched the television series Roots as a teenager before moving on to read the rich literature chronicling the slave experience, as well as the economic logic that underpinned the triangular trade from Africa to the Americas.
But shouldn’t we also ensure that students learn about the African chiefs responsible for selling the slaves to the European powers, along with the broader history of this barbaric practice – one that was perpetrated in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Israel, Han China and Japan, as well as by the Aztecs, Maoris and more? Canon Law accepted slavery, The prophet Muhammad practiced it, as did the Ottomans, who raided the west coast of Ireland and carried of English settlers to bondage and death. So, too, did the other European powers, who wanted to use the bounty of slave trading to usurp and destroy Britain itself. Moreover, shouldn’t students learn that while slavery is now outlawed in every nation, it continues to this day, not least in Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, as well as in a more modern form in the brothels and some nail bars of capitalist nations?
The same context is needed for colonialism. I watched Sathnam Sanghera’s sobering documentary on the 1919 massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, in which British forces, without warning, opened fire on a peaceful gathering of mainly Sikhs, killing 379 including 42 children. These atrocities should be part of a shared understanding of our history, along with the exploitation vividly chronicled by Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire. But shouldn’t this also include the thesis that many British colonies prospered relative to those of France, Spain and Portugal because of the institutions and culture gained from Britain, not least the common law?
Perhaps the crucial point is that we should resist the temptation for British history top ne exploited by the political extremes, something that will exacerbate polarisation. When MPs wrote to the Government last week arguing that we need more black history in our schools I found myself nodding. All youngsters would benefit from learning about the achievements of ethnic-minority Britons, along with the injustices they faced. Likewise, I think most reasonable people will empathise with those offended by statues that memorialise slavers, and that a debate on this topic was long overdue (albeit one that should be decided through democracy rather than vandalism). But most will find it astonishing that broadcasters are tying themselves up in knots as to whether to pull such television classics as Fawlty Towers in response to a relatively small group of activists, vocal on Twitter and the streets. This isn’t debate; it’s intimidation.
Above all, we should remember that morality evolves. A hundred years ago most people thought that homosexuality was sinful. Five hundred years ago most cultures believed that slavery was justifiable – Saint Paul positioned it as part of God’s plan and it existed in the ideal cities discussed by Plato. This implies that many of our practices today will come to be regarded as primitive, even repugnant, by future generations (such as, perhaps, the killing of animals for meat). Does this mean that nothing we do today can be good? Does it mean we shouldn’t even try? Or does it mean that, whatever we do, however imperfect when judged by future standards, it is nevertheless possible to take society in a progressive direction? If the latter is the case, and I believe it is, the same must hold for historic figures and, indeed, empires. As my father put it last week: “Britain is a great nation that also committed great crimes. That is the paradox that both sides need to grasp.”
Matthew Syed. June 2020
PHILOSOPHY OF FLINT
Organisms such as sponges (on the macro scale) and radiolaria/diatoms (on the micro scale) use silica from sea water to manufacture the biogenic opal which forms their skeletons. When the organisms die and the organic parts decay the microscopic silica is scattered on the sea bed and becomes incorporated in the accumulating sediment.
At depths of 1 to 5m within this sediment, the biogenic opal breaks down, enriching the water between the sediment particles (sediment pore water) with silica.
At sediment depths of less than 10m, there is an oxic-anoxic boundary where hydrogen sulphide rising from the decomposing organic material within the sediment diffuses upwards and meets oxygen diffusing downwards from the water column above. At this interface, the hydrogen sulphide is oxidised becoming a sulphate and creating hydrogen ions as a by-product. The hydrogen ions lower the local pH, dissolving the chalk and thereby increasing the concentration of carbonate ions. These act as a seeding agent for the precipitation of silica.
The molecule-by-molecule replacement of chalk precipitates out as silica; which is initially in the form of crystalline opal but gradually transforms to quartz (flint) during later burial and with time.
The chalk sea bed is deeply burrowed by many different organisms, such as shells, echinoids and worms etc. Some of these burrows are quite deep or branching, or have open living spaces. The burrows fill with sediment after the organism has died, but this is a slightly different material from the sediment around it and forms a preferential pathways (conduit) for the chemical reactions to occur. Flint therefore tends to form within these old burrows, often with a nodular shape which reflects the whole, or part of, overgrown remnants of such burrow systems.
Flint also tends to form in bands or layers - a less well understood phenomenon for which there are two current theories. Firstly this might be because both chalk sedimentation and climate change (which impacts the flora and fauna within the sea) occurs in cycles; and secondly because the process described above exhausts the silica within a given depth of sediment and flint formation can only recommence when enough new sediment has accumulated with enough new silica to start the process again.
EXISTENCE IS THE MOTHER OF ALL HUMOUR
A horse walks into a bar and orders a pint....
Actually this story is about Descartes' famous philosophy
of "I think, therefore I am" - but to explain that before the story
would have been putting Descartes before the horse.
#002 IT'S LIFE JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
extract from The New Scientists "2018 Collection" shared
on 29th August 2018:
This is a précis of an article about whether there
is other life in the Universe.
How do living cells work?
Making organic molecules: easy. Making
complex organic molecules: hard.
Where does the energy come from?
May the force be with you
Alkaline Thermal Vents
Prokaryotes v Eukaryotes.
Complex life seems to be a fluke of nature
Life on other planets
The following extract from
an episode of BBC Radio 4's "The Infinite Monkey Cage"
There is a problem of insignificance, especially when looking at
the night sky.
You can understand that when dealing with such magnitudes, people can feel like specks - less than specks - barely the dust of our universe.
After watching a lecture on the grandeur of the Universe, hearing about the light years between the billions of galaxies and the speed of expansion of the Universe, with everything getting further apart by the second; that sense of tiny speck-ness can become palpable. You don't have to travel far from the Earths surface for human beings to become indistinguishable from the rivers, rocks and sea; and from a little further away you'll find that there is no visible trace of the civilisation which from our perspective glows and pulses as we walk through it.
The average human is insubstantial next to Mount Everest, negligible compared to the size of Jupiter, and almost nothing in comparison to the large Magellanic Cloud. However, this insignificance is just one of size. It is judging magnitude solely by height and girth. But size is not everything.
We may not stand tall, but we are incredibly complex by the standards of everything else we have observed so far in this Universe. Our structure and behaviour is far less predictable than that of a planet or a galaxy. How many more equations are required to summarise the behaviour of a gnat compared to the equations that predict the behaviour of a pulsar? What processes are required to crawl and catch a fly, compared to the comparatively simple processes that cause a star to shine? We can understand nuclear fusion in the heart of our sun - the conversion of hydrogen to helium and the light produced - yet we have very little idea of how and why we can be consciously aware of that sun - far less understand what it is that drives us, among all other animals on the planet, to question how it works!
Our temperament can be volcanic. Our behaviours can be giddy. Our emotions can be tumultuous. Our ability to predict even our own changes of mental state can be scant at the best. It is our ability to perceive our insignificance that marks out our significance.
Most of space is "empty". If you were teleported to a totally random place in the Universe, it is highly unlikely that you would find yourself near anything solid. if you were lucky enough to land yourself on another planet, it is highly unlikely - from what we know and currently understand - that the planet would be able to sustain life, let alone complex life. Already you are significant despite being a speck!
Added to the complexity of your biological structure, even by Earth's standards, your brain is exceedingly complex and questioning. You may be small but you are unusual, and you know it, and there is nothing else in this solar system beyond earth that could say that. Or indeed, could say anything at all!
Every human, therefore, is a thing of great significance in a restricted but very important sense. On a cosmic scale our physical presence is of no consequence, We are each a temporary assembly of ten billion billion billion atoms which in a century or less will all be returned for recycling. But for the briefest of moments these atoms are able to contemplate themselves and other atoms. The atoms we are composed of were born in stars and spent an eternity in darkness before we existed; and they will spend an eternity in darkness when we are gone; Our purpose should be to extend their moment in the light as best we can.