Category Archives: science

The Georgian Star

The Hershel Museum sits in a quiet street of terraced houses just outside the centre of Bath. I’ve passed it many times, seen the modest plate that marks it. In the back garden of this house, in 1781, William Hershel, musician, church organist, composer of symphonies and amateur astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus. Hershel was from Hanover, but left his home to escape conscription and was soon joined in England by his sister Caroline. The reigning monarch, King George III, was also from Hanover, so Hershel wanted to name his new planet George, or ‘the Georgian Star’. Despite not succeeding in this, the king appointed Hershel his court astronomer, and in the years to come, Hershel was to build a telescope, in Slough, so huge that it remained the biggest in the world for fifty years.

The discovery of Neptune, in 1846 has, to some extent, obscured Hershel’s achievement, and minimised the profound effect it must have had on contemporary thinking. Uranus was the first planet to be discovered in modern times. Each of those already discovered is visible to the naked eye and were known even to the Babylonians. Neptune’s discovery doubled the size of the solar system, and, at the same time, made Earth, and thus all the achievements of humanity, shrink down to tiny speck, just one more, orbiting our Sun. Furthermore Hershel recognised that some of what were thought of as nebulae, clouds of cosmic dust, were other galaxies, and the recognition of this could only serve to reduce the sense of humanity’s importance, and maybe question belief in a deity.

Hershel’s first obsession was cataloguing double stars – pairs of stars which appear to be close; some of these he recognised as being binary stars, a term and distinction which is still in use today. Meanwhile his sister, who at first accepted the role of his assistant, noting down his observations in the light of the kitchen while he sat at his telescope in the garden, began her own quest, and today is celebrated for her work on comets, one of which bears her name.

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Octopus Consciousness

Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s  dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary‘  explores this subject in great depth).  Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.

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The Mouse that Roared

Are we influenced by the fears, and maybe the loves of our ancestors?  This story – http://www.nature.com/news/fearful-memories-haunt-mouse-descendants-1.14272 – took my breath away.  A mouse was trained to react negatively to a particular smell, and this reaction was passed on to its grandchildren.  The experiment asks as many questions as it answers – for politicians, teachers, artists, for all of us.  Just as we’ve got used to the idea that we may be the product more of our genes than of our nurture, this blows the whole argument open again.

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