Diving in Dahab

As my doctoral studies draw to a close, and the number of my days in the middle-east seem to dwindle to a bounded uncertainty, I weigh my opportunities in the balance between daring and prudence. The invitation to join a group of students and postdoctoral fellows to go diving in Dahab in the troubled land of Egypt, before my return to Scotland, was a difficult one to refuse, despite the dangers.

To some, it may seem foolhardy; to many, it would be; and indeed, perhaps it was: since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, in which the former President Mubarak fled from Cairo and the Military took control, this beautiful country, once a hive of tourism, has seemed increasingly out of bounds. And Egypt has yet to find its political feet. Mohamed Morsi’s subsequent election to the presidency in June 2012 was short-lived. Following massive protests, Morsi was forcibly removed from office, and the government ostensibly lies for the moment in the hands of an unelected acting President. Despite having one of the longest histories of any state, Egypt remains uncertain of its modern identity, violently torn between Islamic factions, and swayed by liberals and secularists.

However, living for a little while in a country many imagine to be wracked with peril, one learns to localise and relativise the dangers of the world. “Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous… And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion”. Whilst the Sinai Peninsula is not to be travelled lightly, certain parts of Egypt, like the lovely coastal village of Dahab, continue to receive a steady trickle of tourists – but of a different sort; they are those who know something about the place they are going to, and some of the people who live there. Dangerous? Yes, but a danger negotiated with knowledge and risked in the familiarity of affection.

Dahab is a truly delightful and friendly village, situated on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. For anyone who has travelled in the East, there is much that is typically Arabic, yet different, and we spent many contented hours stretched out by the sea in the Yalla Bar, one of many colourful coffee shops and restaurants on its coastal road that open out onto the sea front. Dahab is known in Hebrew as Di-Zahav, being named after one of the stations of the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. “We want the Israelis to start coming again”, confessed an Egyptian at our hotel, who invited me to sit with his friends by the fire to listen to haunting Bedouin songs of frustrated love. “Israeli girls are so beautiful!”

On the day of our arrival, our group set out in two jeeps across the desert to a point a few kilometres North of Dahab, to go snorkeling over ‘The Blue Hole’. This was a remarkable experience: the water is beautifully clear and alive with fish and other aquatic creatures I cannot put a name to. Within only a few feet of the shore, the rocky floor dramatically gives way to a deep blue abyss. Equipped with a snorkel so you can see and breathe under the water, it seems as though you are flying over the edge of a cliff! It also feels rather perilous. The Blue Hole has claimed many lives, and though beloved by scuba-divers everywhere, it is also known by another name: “the diver’s cemetery”.

On another day, a smaller number of us elected to climb Mount Sinai at midnight, to await the sunrise. The ascent up the Siket El Bashait (the camel road) was seldom steep, but even in the bright light of a full moon, the path at times felt treacherous underfoot. Indeed, we began on the wrong foot with our Bedouin guide, who introduced himself with the words, “I am Moses, and I will be your guide up Mount Sinai”. We couldn’t help but chuckle, yet the joke seemed to escape him: “Why do you laugh? That is my name, ok?!”. We set off up the mountain at a terrific pace, passing the monastery and many mournful camels (that appeared as rocks, until they moaned and turned their heads disdainfully), pausing finally near the summit in a freezing shelter to huddle with many other pilgrims in dirty blankets, like Afghan refugees, awaiting the coming sunrise. With the first glimmers of light breaking across the horizon, we stumbled quickly up a set of roughly hewn steps to the summit, as the skyline burst into flames across the panorama of The Holy Mountains. The view was severely spectacular, and somehow forbidding. The trip to Mount Sinai was the only time any of us felt ourselves to be ‘unsafe’, though perhaps we had nothing to fear besides our hilariously bad-tempered tour guide (and the threat of pneumonia). I myself suspect ‘Moses’ would have gladly sold us (back) into slavery with Egypt, had the opportunity arisen, but we made it back to Dahab safely.

The day I decided to go scuba-diving for the first time felt much like the morning of a major exam, to begin with; I was admittedly apprehensive. There is a certain despicable machismo that arises among sporty white men — which is finally receiving attention from the sociologists — that makes the simple pursuit and enjoyment of physical activities considerably more difficult for those who fall outside certain culturally-defined parameters. Nevertheless, I wanted to overcome my fears and go diving! After a remarkably short time above the water, learning some basic survival skills with an instructor, we plunged beneath the waves, and the sea floor dropped sharply away beneath us, as we glided over coral reefs and swam amidst small shoals of exotic Red Sea fish. It is a truly remarkable – even spiritual – experience, with your life hanging by the cord connecting the tank you must carry on your back to the regulator you must bite in your mouth, sinking ever-deeper away from the familiar world and into the hands of an unseen instructor hovering close behind, where you cannot see him. Yet you forget the fear, as you gaze at the wonderful things around you in a very different world in which you have briefly been permitted entrance. Perhaps I have surprised myself by swallowing my fears this week (as well as a certain quantity of salt water). Undoubtedly there are many who would be surprised, if I troubled to tell them half the things I get up to when they aren’t around.

There is perhaps nothing so sad in life as the feeling of being unknown. And there is perhaps nothing so galling in life as the presumption of people who think they know us. Those who feel unknown feel unloved, but those who imagine they know us ‘to a T’ seldom love what they see –- on the contrary, they dismiss it, and we are not free to express what we are or what we are becoming around them. Yet the command to ‘love one another’ that reverberates down the centuries is not a call to delimit with dismissive categories, but to fan into the flames of actuality, through eternity, what exists now as inexhaustible potency; the imago dei in each of us is not readily circumscribed. Pride and prejudice, however, leave us ill-placed to know each other, or even ourselves. For we can only know in part what we only see in part; we are called to love an unseen whole which belongs to One who alone may call himself “I am”. And we ought to tremble at this mystery, which descended upon Mount Sinai in fire: we are finite knowers, made in the image of the Infinite.

Our opportunities for knowing and loving each other, in this life, are also limited and fraught with peril. Today, a tourist bus containing Korean pilgrims on route from Mount Sinai exploded within a mere fifty meters of the Egyptian-Israeli border, only hours after our own safe passage across the Sinai peninsula. I myself suspect the bus contained the same Koreans we met on the summit singing Christian hymns — a grievous turn of events. Our guide in Egypt, a pious Muslim and an old friend to some of our group, wrote the following message to us: “I thank God that you are all safe… I couldn’t hold my tears when I heard the news from Taba. I really do love you all”. There is more to living life well as a Physicist than computing the Lagrangian on survival and success. I am glad I went diving in Dahab.

The Heights of Hong Kong

Greetings from Hong Kong. More precisely, a hearty ‘hello’ from the highest swimming pool on top of the tallest building on the Kowloon Peninsula. It’s been an intense (and calorific) week, and I am attempting to diffuse the stress (and reduce the size of my belly) in a Spa 118 floors above this troubled world. Exercising at this height is not strictly necessary, of course; it simply amuses me, as I write, to see the odd plane flying past on the same level as the water. And somehow it seems to me that my plans, pressed forward by a steady course of emails between stints in the dizzying pool, attain a certain gravity in their descent to earth from this lofty tower. “Build me an army worthy of Mordor!” On second thoughts, perhaps I had better not send that one…


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I have had a splendid week. My talk on a mountainous campus in Hong Kong was well-received, I was fascinated by the laboratory I visited, and I enjoyed being taken around the city (or cities) by some local Chinese friends to see the sites and feast on noodles and dim sum. Lots of things are beginning to happen, though I suspect I am going to need some ‘time out’ to bring them to fruition. And possibly a ‘reality check’. I have spent this week in a rather nice apartment suite with a sweeping view of the Victoria harbour and the city skyline. The service is almost obsequious, from the faintly unctuous taxi attendant who met me in arrivals, to the top-heavy waiter during a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, who appeared to have been built with a spring in the middle. I have also had access to a private business lounge of the sort that is usually above my lowly station in life. It’s a heady mix in which one might come to believe that one is rather important and can do what one likes.

Yet this is a transitory moment in the course of a meandering career; like life itself, it cannot be expected to last, nor should a man step aside from his path in a wayward effort to secure it. A proper response, of course, is simply to enjoy the moment. Besides all the years I spent as a lad listening patiently to the tales other people told me about what they were doing and looking wistfully at the photographs foisted upon me every summer, these were blessings unsought. But in addition to gratitude, there is caution, and then the hallowed disciplines of simplicity renewed, for a selfish darkness lies upon the heart in which even the best of nature or human artifice may be turned into the instruments of our corruption. It is not sufficient that we enjoy the wave that was sent; like Sauron, we seek dominion of the earth and its tides.

China was once a deeply spiritual country, affirming the quest for virtue and finding meaning in many things besides mammon. However, on the streets of Hong Kong today, the temples and holy sites seem reduced to little islands in the urban jungle, overshadowed by faceless high rise apartment blocks and besieged by department stores. These dwindling pockets of the colourful and the sublime are now frequented by the pious elderly and tourists; the new gods, made in the image of the West, flash from digital screens in the high street, promising happiness through material acquisition. For the young, it seems that little remains of the Old Ways beyond a residue of superstition. Or so it has seemed to me, in my short travels in China this year, on both the mainland and in Hong Kong.

As I made my way through what seemed an endless albeit spectacular spectacle of shopping malls on Canton Road, seeking with increasing desperation some quiet place for a coffee, “the bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space”. A wholesome horror of the sheer power of materialism that the scientific West has released upon the world was followed by a piteous sadness. I returned to the quiet business lounge with my purchases, but did not remove my designer sunglasses.

Christmas in the Holy Land

It’s been a while since last I blogged, but I have had an unexpectedly special time this Christmas and have decided to write something about it. Of course, I should be getting back to work, but I wanted to bask a little longer in the warming afterglow of having meant something to somebody in Israel, besides a brain in linen trousers at a scientific institute, and to jot down a few reflections about the experience, before they become displaced by differential equations.


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The Christmas season has not hitherto been a significant part of my life, and a few years ago I might have questioned the wisdom of keeping ‘holy days’, perhaps transposing to my own purpose the old Protestant maxim: “there is no sacred-secular divide”. I do not wish to discuss here the theology behind this claim, but merely to observe that the refusal to set aside one thing from another will never make everything ‘sacred’ for anybody; on the contrary, it is more likely to make everything ‘secular’. No doubt, every day ought to be hallowed and lived in a heightened awareness of the divine in all things, wherever we are in the world. However, to suppose that we can begin where the spiritual master hopes to end is adolescent idealism. “We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights… Not yet, at any rate”, as the hobbits Merry and Pippin observed. But “you must start somewhere and have some roots.”

In recent years, I have been making an effort to pay a little more heed to the Gregorian calendar. Whilst I continue to dislike what I call ‘commercial Christmas’, and wish to avoid entangling myself in its excesses, like it or not, it has been elected that this time of year should be set aside for honouring the birth of Jesus Christ. And there is something especially poignant about the season this year for me, as ‘a stranger in a strange land’, precisely because Israel as a nation doesn’t bother itself about it. There’s no Christmas holiday at the Weizmann; nothing to acknowledge even the dimming memory of a birth that has left so indelible a mark upon history and human lives (whatever faith we may or may not profess). So I decided to spend a few days in Jerusalem, to be close to the Anglican Church and its traditions, and then to accept the kind invitation of a local congregation that holds its meetings in a nearby Kibbutz.

Jerusalem, of course, is endlessly intriguing. The Anglican Church I attended is situated in the Armenian Quarter of The Old City, within a minute’s walk of the Jaffa Gate. The service is structured by a culturally contextualised liturgy in which certain parts are said or sung in Hebrew, including the sh’ma. We stand for the reading of the gospel; sin is corporately confessed; and communion is clearly and lovingly maintained at the centre – the apex to which the service ascends, lingering on bended knee to receive the sacraments, before making its withdrawal in final benediction. Somehow historic faith and contemporary expression are wonderfully present here. For the goyim living ‘in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water’, a good church can be an oasis, and the Christmas season both a life line and a fishing net, drawing people together for hospitality and friendship.

I have one other experience to touch on. I was invited to spend the evening of Christmas Day at the home of a local leader of a Jewish-lead congregation that meets on a Kibbutz. (The meetings are conducted almost entirely in Hebrew, with a translation filtered through an earpiece). Like many messianic Jews, my host does not keep Christmas, but decided to throw a party nonetheless for the students in the vicinity who found themselves far from their families this Christmas. This seemed to me to show great kindness. In addition to enjoying a simple home-cooked buffet and some company, we spent considerable time that evening trying to learn each others names (a number of the students were from communities in Nigeria or Uganda, part of the evening reading passages pertaining to the birth of Christ (a struggle for some of the less literate in English), and the rest of the evening singing along to some rather dreadful Christian worship music. Our host had bought presents for each of us – a bathroom mat, in my case (which I actually needed, as it happens). It was an entirely unusual, often amusing, faintly exasperating, but altogether heartwarming experience. And what different people we all were; just pick myself and my host, for example – a little tubby man with the tools of his trade hanging from his belt, and a mind and manner so decidedly dissimilar to my own, radiating nonetheless a warmth of good will. It raises a smile to think of Jesus Christ uniting such a motley crew on Christmas Day, in defiance of so great a multiplicity of differences.

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant owns a beautiful garden, but is unwilling to share it. When he chases away the village children, a relentless Winter descends upon the house of the Giant, and the his garden is buried beneath the snow…

We have ways of making you Tort

I have arrived in Munich, via Tel Aviv, following a pleasantly lazy day in Istanbul earlier this week, sipping Martinis and swimming alongside the Bosphorus. I am here for a philosophy of Physics conference.

I confess to being slightly surprised by what I have seen so far. I had expected Munich to be more austere and more august. I had, I think, anticipated a certain severity in the architecture more consonant with a country that has tried to take over the world – twice. But along the streets near my (rather lacklustre) hotel, I see the soft pastel shades of Innsbruck and feel the ‘merry holiday love’ of Salzburg. It’s all rather pleasant, with ‘no need to mention the war’. Sorry! (Fawlty Towers fans will understand…)

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Still, it is surprisingly hot and humid. Air conditioning appears to be a luxury in Germany. My hotel doesn’t have it. The coffee shops don’t seem to have it. Sitting at Cafe Altschwabing last night, I couldn’t have cared less whether the cocktail was shaken or stirred; the sweat trickling down my back was too distracting. I might as well have been on the beach at Haifa, bouncing the waves.

Today, I am visiting the Volksbad, the self-consciously proletariat swimming pool designated specifically for ‘the poor’ by the engineer Karl Müller. With its high arched and patterned ceiling, its statues, its stone steps and its balconies, the Volksbad of Munich is a surprisingly lavish public bath, but it sounds just right for ‘poor little me’, trying to escape the heat. Aristotle is coming too, in the form of a Routledge volume; I feel the need to fortify myself, before I march my way into the Mathematics department in Munich and the twisted metaphysics of contemporary philosophy of physics

‘Oppa Guangzhou-Style’

I am between two worlds; Guangzhou behind me, Istanbul but two hours away.

If Suzhou was like finding “heaven on earth” (some parts of it, anyway), Guangzhou was like falling to earth with a bump (at least, to begin with). The busy traffic, high-rise buildings and strident advertising felt smothering. What had happened to the sky? The Physics department also seemed oppressive (but then, most Physics departments do).

Fortunately, it has not been a case of ‘all work and no play’. One of the chief sources of amusement has been the restaurants, and one restaurant in particular sticks in my mind – of the kind where you choose what you want to eat from the aquarium in which it is swimming, or the box in which it is slithering. In addition to the fish, octopus and sea snails, we decided to go for some grass snakes. I consumed about half of one (in the spirit of Genesis 3), though I can’t say I cared much for the taste… or the aftertaste. I think I’ll stick to squid.

At the weekend, there was also time for a trip up Baiyun mountain. A colleague of mine was also in Guangzhou, and we ascended together, scaling the dizzy heights with a cable cart (did you expect me to climb in this heat?). Inevitably, our conversation turned to higher matters — the meaning of life, and that sort of thing.

For my last evening in Guangzhou, our research group elected to go on a short cruise up the Pearl River. The brightly lit, garish boats, and the patterned lights of many skyscrapers, make for a spectacular skyline. Annoying Chinese girls seeking photographs alongside a large white hairy western male, however do not. (Somehow I never attract this sort of interest in the UK… and I’m not complaining.)

The Four Seasons hotel is one of the most impressive buildings in the commercial district, standing one hundred floors above the ground. From the 70th floor up the building is hollow, its outer layers of rooms stacked and stretching skyward towards a glass roof, its gargantuan innards impressively visible from thirty circular corridors, like a vast illuminated hive. The view of the city from our coffee-room table is commanding. Sitting in a cushioned swivel-chair after the cruise, with a glass of Baileys in one hand, I was reminded of the temptations of Christ. Amusingly, even the gentlemens’ toilets boast a view of the city, glass-faced, with marbled receptacles perched on the outer edge. Doubtless some of the rich and powerful in China enjoy the sensation of relieving themselves over the city…

Venice of the East

My first fews days in Suzhou have been enjoyable ones. One of the students joined me for breakfast the first time (rice, Chinese dumplings, some green vegetable matter, along with other items I can’t put a name to), and we walked to the campus together. It is pleasantly green, and close to a river.

My host has invited me to lunch each day (typically noodles and I know-not-whats), and has walked with me into town, pointing out some of the noteable features. I begin to see why Suzhou, with its rivers and channels and little stone bridges, is called the Venice of the East.


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It is stiflingly warm and humid, however. I had hoped to pick up some cool pyjamas, but I am rather large by Chinese standards; none could be found to fit. My host kindly purchased a silken vest for me as a ‘present’ instead. I think there can be few Professors of Physics who present their student visitors with silk undergarments, so I feel suitably honoured (and quietly amused). They insist on paying me too (for the lecturing), though given all the questions they had I feel they got their money’s worth. I am treated like a professor, and occasionally addressed as one too.

I am rather jolly this evening. A large glass of Baileys might have something to do with that. The large number of beautiful things that I have bought is another reason (an incurable magpie!).

I am sitting in a coffee shop counting my blessings on Diagon Alley – that’s my name for this enchanting street (pinched from Harry Potter, of course). The Chinese just call it Pingjiang road. It is delightful. Quaint, eccentric, and easily missed by Muggles, it runs alongside one of the many Venician canals that criss-cross the city of Suzhou, with happy disregard for the modern world; an echo of the ancient Song Dynasty. The light comes largely from the dense assortment of coffee and craft shops, cake, card and tea shops, silk shops and clothes shops, little restaurants and boutiques, which spill out onto the street in brightly lit tables festooned with samples of their wares. Chinese lanterns hang in many of the windows, and the smells of various kinds of cooking linger in the warm air, strange and pungent.

It is full of life, of course: people shopping, cycling, eating and drinking; people walking and talking, resting and reading. The life comes from the buildings, as a Scrutonite might say. Or the buildings create the human spaces for it, and, marked with traces of the temple, bestow a kind of blessing upon it. Our delight springs from roots that run even deeper than the Song Dynasty. We were meant to do these things.

I will soon reach my last day in Suzhou, with its gardens and temples, open lakes and Venician canals; the city of China that is often described as “heaven on earth”. Here the old and the new ways meet, though they do not merge; the modern skyscrapers stare down at the older part of the city, separated by time and water. From across the Jinji lake, they glitter across the skyline like bars of silver, a testimony to the city’s expanding prosperity.

I have been treated with great kindness this week: my host has taken me to many of the gardens and scenic spots, to lakes, to temples and Pagodas, and has introduced me to some of the finest Chinese cuisine. (I confess to having suffered a defeat, however, in attempting to tackle a large lobster in its shell with chopsticks…).

The roots of the towers of Suzhou run deep indeed. The Ruiguang Pagoda (瑞光塔) is estimated to have stood for over two millenia, watching the Wu Gate Bridge. The Yunyan Pagoda (虎丘塔/云岩寺塔) – or “Leaning Tower of China” – was built on Tiger Hill in 961. Ancient poetry and calligraphy mark the rocks of the hill, and legends have gathered around the seven-story tower, even as it has slipped from its foundations over the course of a thousand years.

The gardens of Suzhou are sublime…

Seeking a metaphysical rapprochement

Introduction to the PhysPhil Conference 2012.

Welcome to St Andrews.

Thank you all for coming to (what I believe to be) our first Philosophy of Physics conference.  And this is St Andrews’ six hundredth anniversary; which is why I thought it was high time that we should have one!

Of course, once upon a time, Physics was a part of natural philosophy, and students of Physics were trained in philosophical texts and forms of argumentation; they were men of letters as well as numbers. But, if I may venture an opinion of my own, before I turn you over to our excellent speakers, we are passing through an age of rigid specialization, fragmentation, and anti-intellectualism, and some of us believe that this is bad for physics, that this could be a hindrance to the progress of physics, and that this is certainly a problem for the interpretation of physics.

Case in point, when certain prominent Physicists (who shall remain unnamed) can sow such consummate confusion about the nature of reality (‘that everything supposedly came out of literally nothing’, for example), or evince such contempt for and ignorance of the state of philosophy (‘it is supposedly dead’, for example), and imagine that technical expertise in modern Physics somehow legitimizes such claims, it is clear that something has gone horribly wrong with our education. This is why I think interdisciplinary conferences of this kind are important.

On the other hand, it is also seems to me (if I may venture one more opinion) that the physicist has some just complaints to make against some of our modern philosophers, who often seem determined to supervene everything upon, or reduce everything to, a picture of the world that is a residue of classical physics — which is antiquated physics — a picture consisting of pellets set in motion, a metaphysic (I would suggest) that is neither intuitive, common-sensical, or supported by modern physics, in fact. And again, this is another reason why I think interdisciplinary conferences of this kind are important.

But you haven’t come to hear my opinions. Not yet. Perhaps in five or ten years… Today, you will be hearing from and talking to some well-seasoned philosophers and physicists, from the United Kingdom, and from the United States.

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So let me hand you over to our leading chairman today, Raymond Tallis, a philosopher, cultural critic, retired medical doctor, and public intellectual – a gentlemen, if I may say so, who has successfully resisted the zeitgeist of rigid specialism, and acquired a mind in the process. We are very happy to have you with us today, Ray.