This Human Life

I find it fascinating (yes, a favourite word of mine) to consider ourselves and how we as humans have grown in knowledge and understanding since we have existed. But in relative terms, that isn’t very long at all. I remember being told that attempting to imagine the Universe as a whole is just a total and absolute impossibility for us to do. I tend to agree, as I saw an item on the Internet the other day where someone was asking how big the largest thing in the Universe is, as well as how small. The answer given was that the biggest thing in the universe which scientists have discovered so far is a supercluster of galaxies called the ‘Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall’ and the smallest thing in the universe is a particle called a ‘Quark’. In fact the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is considered to be so wide that light itself would take 10 billion years to move around the structure and the amazing thing is that our universe itself is just 13.8 billion years old. Whilst a quark is a type of elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter, as they are amongst the smallest particles in the universe and carry only fractional electric charges. Scientists have a good idea of how quarks make up things that are called hadrons, which in particle physics are composite, subatomic particles (such as protons or neutrons) made of two or more quarks held together by their strong interaction. They are rather like molecules which are held together by electric force. Except the properties of individual quarks have been difficult to ‘tease out’ because they cannot be observed outside of their respective hadrons! Whew – too much for me, I guess that’s one for someone doing a science degree. When I was at school, I wasn’t by any means brilliant but as I have said before I had what was called ‘an enquiring mind’. I still do. In the past couple of years I have had the great opportunity of chatting to medical students at the Leicester University Medical School and one day when I attended a session with them, outside one building I saw a sign which really made me chuckle. It is this one.

It’s not rocket science…

It just goes to show that there are many things which we never could imagine ourselves doing, yet years later we find that we have achieved. It is also, to me at least, of great importance that as we grow, we share. There are, sadly, many people in the world today who want to be great but at the expense as well as the detriment of others. Such people think nothing of taking things from others, whether it be money, knowledge or skills, but they will give absolutely nothing back of themselves. Or, if they see someone else doing well, then they attempt to take credit for the other person’s achievements. That, in my humble opinion, is very wrong. My father was an excellent teacher, he went on to be the deputy headmaster of an infant/junior school. My mother worked in a few different places, when she left school she was insistent on not working in a local factory in London as many of her schoolmates did, she wanted and did work in the offices of W.H. Smith, where she met my dad. When circumstances moved the family from London to Peterborough, mum looked after us children and later worked at a local solicitors, then the local town hall. They weren’t highly skilled jobs that she had but they were vital ones, nevertheless. Then, when retirement came along mum and dad had several years together travelling, they particularly liked Jersey and Guernsey. Having been there myself, I can understand why. Sadly my dad got cancer, as he smoked a fair bit just as so many people did in those days. It is all part of life and I think we should do our best to learn from each and every experience, the good and the not so good. To me it isn’t ‘bad’, it is just what it is. I have mentioned how me being left-handed meant that my writing is not good. But I found that by angling the paper or whatever that I was writing on to around forty-five degrees, I could see the words I was writing without smudging what I had written. At work I found others who also wrote left-handed, one man even wrote in such a way that it looked like he was writing backwards. But it most definitely worked for him. I have said previously about computers, how they were of benefit to me in all sorts of ways and still are. I was learning, learning all the time about new things, seeing others with new ideas and at times seeing how they could be adapted in new or simply different ways. It was and is to me all part of life, how things should be. But then I saw another question that had been posted onto the Internet, which was “What is the purpose of learning how the Universe works?”. This really caught my attention, it piqued my interest as I have always wanted and been encouraged to learn, to develop and understand new things. The following is a what my research has found.

This is part of what is called ‘disinterested inquiry.’ And the synonym for this is of course ‘science’. Learning is a virtue, and virtue is its own reward. That is its purpose. At one time, Astronomy was concerned purely with ‘where’ the stars were, and not ‘what’ they were. In the early 1900s, George Ellery Hale, Director of Mount Wilson Observatory in California, U.S.A., insisted on installing a physics laboratory in the facility and the publication from the observatory was titled ‘Astro-Physics’, but it was soon changed to ‘Astrophysics’. Albert Einstein formulated and published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916 and in 1929 Edmund Hubble discovered whilst he was at Mount Wilson that the Milky Way galaxy was not the whole universe, and that it was expanding, as Einstein’s General Relativity Theory predicted. As a matter of interest, the Mount Wilson Observatory really is an important astronomical facility in Southern California with historic 60-inch (1,524mm) and 100-inch (2,540mm) telescopes, and 60-foot (18.3m) and 150-foot (45.7m) solar towers. Located there is also the newer, Centre for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) array, an ‘optical interferometer’ and it is there that the technique of Interferometry is used, as this uses the interference of superimposed waves to extract information and typically uses electromagnetic waves. It is an important investigative technique in the fields of astronomy, fibre optics, engineering, metrology, oceanography, seismology and many other sciences too numerous to mention. It is even used in the making of holograms. The array consists of six, 1-metre (40-inch) telescopes operating as an astronomical interferometer. Construction was completed in 2003 and is owned and run by Georgia State University (GSU). It does important interferometric stellar research. The summit of Mount Wilson is at 5,710 feet (1,740m) and whilst not the tallest peak in its vicinity, it is high enough in elevation that snow can sometimes interrupt astronomical activities on the mountain. All of the mountains south of the summit are far shorter, leading to unobstructed views across the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County, San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. At such an elevation the horizon over the ocean extends 92 miles (148km). Mount Wilson is also heavily used for relay broadcasting of both radio and television for the Greater Los Angeles Area. But back to the history lesson. Some years ago now a plethora of physicists were figuring out atoms and quantum mechanics, considering what were the smallest things in the universe. Discoveries were made and when more is known, things happen. The Apollo Moon Project was pure applied astronomy, going to the Moon to obtain samples of rock. As a result of the need for navigation, the small compact computer, which could operate continuously in real time, was invented. You are reading this with that computer’s core development, but consider for a moment if you will the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which was the first to land men on the Moon. On board that spacecraft was a computer called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) which had a Random Access Memory (RAM) of just four kilobytes (4KB) with a 32KB hard disk. This meant that it had just 2,048 ‘words’ of memory which could be used to store temporary results, data that is lost when there is no power. Since then, the most obvious advances have been in computing and electronics, especially in reducing size. My very first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 which I purchased in 1981, it had just 1K of RAM and no hard disk. To use it, I had to tune one of the channels on my portable television and programs were either manually typed in each time or saved onto a cassette tape and then reloaded from that. I spent hours and hours copying programs from computer magazines, being careful to put in all the letters, numbers and other symbols just exactly as they were printed, only to find that the program wouldn’t run because of a typing error in the magazine which I (and many others!) only found out about in the following week’s edition of the magazine! But it passed the time and I learned a great deal about computer programming. Then Sir Clive Sinclair sold his business to Amstrad and bigger, better computers were made with larger memory, built-in storage and finally disk drives. But manufacturers realised the gap in the market and made ‘home’ computers, although they were poor compared to the ones we have nowadays. For a number of years I soldiered on with my Amstrad/Sinclair computer, but eventually I bought a more modern computer. Sadly none of the programs I had would work on that new one, although many years later some very clever folk found a way of making those old programs work by making ’simulators’ that made these old programs run properly!

By now mobile telephones were getting popular, they were getting smaller too. I bought what was an ‘electronic diary’, a separate, hand-held computer that worked very well. I was still working in a Sales office of British Telecom and the engineers were going around fitting, installing as well as repairing telephone equipment. Then a few years later I learned that these engineers had been issued with the very same electronic diaries as part of their work! I wish I had known… However, technology continued to move on and after a while I learned about a combined unit which had a diary, a calendar, email and a camera all built into one! Over the past few years I have upgraded that unit, I then moved over to using one made by Apple and am happy with it. But it is a very far cry from that first computer the astronauts used on Apollo 11. We have had bigger and better spacecraft, the space shuttle as well as craft launched out into deep space that take many years to even get as far as Jupiter or Saturn. But research is continuous and at the other end of the ‘size’ spectrum, research with giant synchrotrons at CERN in Europe goes on and they continually learn more about the basic building blocks of the universe. At one point CERN developed so much data that it was difficult to manage, so in 1988 an enterprising physicist there, Timothy Berners-Lee, asked his supervisor for $1,200 to develop what he called ‘a distributing information system’ which was up and running in 1989. Today we call that the Internet. The point of continuous research is that economists discovered in 1990 that the source of 80% of the wealth of nations comes from the support of science research, any science. Knowing how the universe works gives us an idea about what to actually expect from life, our existence and reality. Also, knowing what to expect lets you know how to plan and how to prepare, it lets you focus on what matters, and ignore or dismiss that which does not matter. Knowing helps us to grow as the more you know, the stronger you are when faced with claims and efforts to compel using false thoughts and ideas. To my mind, knowledge is not the opposite of ignorance as no-one can know it all, in fact we simply don’t know what we don’t know. But knowledge is certainly the path to getting there, as well as recognising when you have arrived. So the purpose of learning how the universe works is the joy of inquiry and the benefits are the wealth of nations. That is surely a good thing. The only other thing we should also remember though, in my view, is in our faith, no matter what our race, colour or creed may be.

This week… a personal tale.
I expect my dad told my mum this and it must have amused both of them, as you will see when you read on!

I was quite young when I began singing in our local church choir and on Sundays I would sit in the stalls with other choir members. I would listen to the vicar preach the sermon, but being young I didn’t always understand exactly what was being said. I did my best. At school I and others were taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic and at home we listened to the radio. One of my elder brothers had a small, battery-powered transistor radio and this fascinated me so I tried to learn all about these little radios along with the transistors that were in them. So it was a surprise to me one Sunday when our elderly vicar said what sounded to me like “The changes and chances of this transistory life”. Because I knew transistors had only recently been invented, there was something not quite right so I asked (as was my way) my dear dad, who quietly and kindly pointed out that what the vicar had actually said was “ The changes and chances of this transitory life” and it was nothing to do with transistors! Dad also got me to look up the word ‘transitory’ in the dictionary, learning as I did that it meant “not permanent; tending to pass away”. I learned…

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