Book Review: The Secret Life of Fungi

“fungi are all over us, around us, and in us, so this is not a world we can choose to ignore, or escape, because it’s their space just as much as it’s ours”

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, is a work of non fiction that reads like a series of short vignettes. It enables the author to share her lifelong interest in these extraordinary organisms, which many of us take for granted without considering their wonder. The love of her subject shines through the factual, fascinating and often playful prose. It is a book that could change readers’ perception of what exists all around them, wherever they are, in or out of the natural world.

Short chapters offer nuggets that remind how amazing nature remains, despite how it has been plundered. Take, for example, Pilobolus crystallinus, the spores of which are jettisoned from the dung heap where they feast at an acceleration equivalent to 20,000G (a bullet is fired from a shotgun at an acceleration of roughly 9000G).

“this spore release is one of the most powerful forces in nature”

A living specimen of Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, has an underground network estimated to stretch for 965 hectares – you could fit 110,000 blue whales within it (although I don’t expect they would be happy with this arrangement). The fungi is a vampire, killing the trees it feasts on. It is also, for no discernable reason, bioluminescent. As the author writes, imagine coming across that in a dark forest at night…

Fungi grow in every possible environment: underground, on icy tundras, from Stonehenge to the International Space Station. Fungal spores can be carried in the wind, some causing illness such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever), which can be fatal – invading its host until eventually (without treatment) vital organs fail. And yet, for every deadly variety there are others necessary for life as we know it.

There are also, of course, the many varieties that are tasty to eat and pleasingly nutritious – although don’t forage unless you know what you’re doing.

The author offers up many interesting facts and musings. Fungi can: bring down a giant ants’ nest; help the depressed or those facing death; aid decomposition of a plethora of substances, including plastic. Without fungi, there would be no orchids.

As we approach the fifth mass extinction on our planet it is worth remembering that fungi have survived and thrived. They are amazing opportunists, growing with equal enthusiasm in graveyards and volcanic ash as in woods, fields or when cultivated.

“We are insignificant as individuals, even as a species. If we were to disappear tomorrow, we would not be missed for long, if at all. The cathedrals might stand for a while, as stones do. The microbes will remain in motion and the light of the stars will still shine.”

The writing flows and engages, making clear why the author has developed and retained her interest in these wondrous organisms that grow and then die back so quickly and reliably. I challenge any reader to finish this book without immediately wanting to go outside and look more closely at the fungi growing where the natural world has not yet been sanitised.

“We are not the giants of this world, but the caretakers.”

“Let’s all go on a long walk and replace words with experience. Let’s go now.”

 
Photos taken by Jackie

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott and Thompson.

Book Review: To Be a Machine

To Be a Machine, by Mark O’Connell, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, one of my favourite literary accolades. It introduces the reader to transhumanism, a movement that aims, by various means, to allow humans to defeat the problem of aging and thereby death. As part of his investigation the author attended events and interviewed proponents of strands of the movement. Their faith in science and zeal to keep themselves alive is akin to a religion albeit with eternal life possible for those who can pay rather than as a reward for particular behaviours.

The first strand discussed is cryogenics which brought to mind ancient Egyptian burial rituals. Corpses are treated to prevent further decay and then stored in the hope that they may one day be reanimated in some new form, a type of reincarnation. Those who cannot afford the full body treatment are decapitated with a view to uploading only the brain. Promoters of this process regard the essence of a person as data, although how they hope to extract this data from the dead is unclear. They believe that the technology will one day be developed. I wondered why they thought future people would see value in bringing back to life those who had demonsrated a god complex.

“The mind is much more than information”

“brains constantly reorganise themselves, both physically and functionally, as a result of actual experience”

The brain is dynamic and there is as yet no precise scientific definition of consciousness. Those who rail against the frailty of their bodies, who wish to develop something more long lasting, regard humans as machines that require an upgrade. They wish to find a way to store the data in their brains that this may be moved elsewhere, enhanced and rejuvenated. The author ponders if only the mega wealthy would be able to afford a version that was ad free.

“I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.”

The discussion moves on to the dangers of developing a super-intelligent machine that would view man in the way man now views animals, a useful resource to be farmed for the machine’s benefit. Unlike man, machines bear no malice, hatred or desire for vengeance.

“The fundamental risk […] was not that superintelligent machines may be actively hostile towards their human creators, or antecedents, but that they would be indifferent.”

In creating these machines we would be creating our successors, rendering ourselves obsolete (in 1863 Samual Butler wrote something similar in light of the industrial revolution – these ideas are not new, merely updated in the language of the computer age).

“Once we can automate computer science research and AI research the feedback loop closes and you start having systems that can themselves build better systems”

“It is unreasonable to think that machines could become nearly as intelligent as we are and then stop”

Caution is advised when creating machines and then setting them tasks. Ask a machine to obliterate cancer and it will obliterate every being that could suffer the disease. Harmful behaviours are intrinsic in goal driven systems. Living requires managing risk but it has yet to be worked out how to teach this to an acceptable level to a machine.

The author attends a show put on by those who fund research into robotic development. Many of the developers and those who fund them are based around Silicon Valley, watched closely by the Pentagon. Tasks set for the robots are obviously aimed at producing machines that could be utilised in war zones.

“This is what we did as a species, after all: we built ingenious devices, and we destroyed things.”

Watching as the robots attempt to complete their tasks, it is clear that whilst machines could easily defeat adult humans in intelligence tests, they struggled to match the skills of a one year old in perception and mobility. These robots are

“an instrument of human perversity, in the service of power and money and war.”

It was noted that Amazon are amongst those funding research into robotic development. Unlike human workers, robots do not need breaks, do not complain or form unions.

The author returns to the transhumanists, comparing their fundamentalism with religion. I pondered if heaven was invented because people couldn’t bear the idea of loved ones, including themselves, no longer existing anywhere, and if hell then followed as a means to coerce them into following codes of conduct prescribed by those who would thereby benefit. Religions tend to be overseen by men.

One of the young men talked of looking forward to the development of sexbots, always available for his pleasure and would never cheat on him. The vast majority of those involved in the movement were white and male.

Certain transhumanists look to a future when man as machine may go forth and colonise space – a new type of empire building.

“This is one of the problems with reality: the extent to which it resembles bad fiction.”

The writing style is thoughtful, informative and often humorous. There are many absurdities raised. Transhumanists cannot seem to comprehend how anyone could accept death as inevitable. They do not within these pages address the problem of overpopulation.

This is a fascinating and accessible read that raises many interesting questions. It is hard to comprehend why so many supposedly intelligent individuals have become involved in particular aspects of the research given where it leads. It is worrying to think that possible upgrades may further increase the inequalities in western capitalist society. Funded by the war makers and hyper wealthy, this may not be of any concern to them.

This book is published by Granta. My copy was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Human Script

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The Human Script, by Johnny Rich, looks at life and what that means. It asks big questions within the context of a fictional tale, pondering how much of what matters to an individual is a construct and how much is real. It explores cause and effect, nature and nurture. It demonstrates that the course of an individual’s life is largely beyond his control.

The protagonist, Chris Putnam, is a biologist working on the Human Genome Project. He is still coming to terms with the break up of his first long term relationship when his brother phones to tell him that their father has died. Chris had not spoken to the old man in many months. He reluctantly returns to the family home for the funeral but is then eager to get away. Over the coming months, as his grief works its way to the surface, Chris encounters problems at work, dabbles in drugs, and neglects a good friend who wishes to help. He also falls in love.

The story is told in 23 chapters, a novel in 23 chromosomes. It offers up the science of what makes a person unique alongside the emotional issues he must face. It took me a few chapters to find the narrator’s voice but I was then hooked on what is a compelling and intelligent read.

A little over halfway through the book Chris reaches crisis point in a number of areas of his life. The reader shares in his thought processes as he struggles with an accelerating downward spiral. Chris is a scientist, a realist who has rejected the religion of his upbringing. He finds the idea that he is unable to determine the direction his life will take an anathema.

The final third of the book is dark in tone. In refusing to be what others want Chris finds himself questioning his very essence. His problems are exacerbated as the science he has relied upon fails him, and the freedom he has fought for becomes his prison. Reality becomes muddied as his perception of life shifts.

The denouement does not offer answers; such answers would be as facile as Douglas Adam’s 42. Instead the reader is left to consider all that has gone before. Chris’s actions influenced events, allowed him to change course, but he could not control the future. Likewise, an author does not control what his reader takes from a book; such perceptions are determined by the reader’s life experiences as much as by what is written down.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Red Button Publishing.

 

Reality doesn’t conform to the models, therefore reality must be wrong

It is very difficult to discuss climate science with those who believe in anthropomorphic global warming. The warmists state that the science is proven; that there is consensus within the scientific community. When it is pointed out to them that many eminent scientists have questioned their orthodoxies, they claim that these scientists are not relevant experts or have been discredited. If it is mentioned that their experts have been publishing incomplete results skewed in their favour then this is explained as being taken out of context or misunderstood. Their experts are always better and more trustworthy than your experts.

When the results of scientific studies do not back up the warmists point of view then it is often claimed that the studies must have been funded by Big Oil or some other dubious source, thus skewing the results. When their own studies (funded by their own interested parties) do not prove their point of view then the results are not published or only ‘relevant’ information is released. There are plenty of people now looking more closely at the available data and debunking the arguments. There are gaping holes in the explanations that bluster and shouting will not hide. Climate science research has become closed and secretive, but carefully worded Freedom of Information requests alongside leaks from scientists who are unwilling to hide uncomfortable truths are uncovering facts that the warmists did not wish to see in the public domain.

I am not going to attempt to debate the science in detail here; plenty of blogs are written by those with more knowledge than I, which clarify the reasoning and publish links to the original research and the lies told to the media about what has been proved. No doubt these will be cast aside contemptuously by those who do not wish to believe. I find it immensely frustrating that the lack of reasoned debate amongst climate scientists is giving science a bad name. Scientific research should be open to questions; if facts can be proven then nothing need be hidden.

What I wish to explore here is the impact of the drive over the past thirty or so years to convince the public that global warming exists, is life threatening and that something can and should be done about it.

The drive to cut CO2 emissions has spawned a plethora of money making schemes. Companies that manufacture and fit solar panels benefit from government subsidies, land owners rent out fields for wind turbines and solar ‘farms’, appliances that meet prescribed environmental ratings do not last as long as those they replace so ensure more sales. The cleaner air produced will rarely offset the pollution caused by the manufacture, fitting and disposal. Householders pay for these schemes through the direct cost of purchase and through taxes that are used to provide the subsidies. Those with solar panels on their roofs may enjoy the short term benefit of subsidised electricity but at what cost to everyone else?

The cleaner air demanded from power stations has made burning fossil fuels uneconomic. Thus, the coal fired stations have been allowed to become run down and will soon be decommissioned. As yet, there is no viable alternative that produces enough power to meet demand. Already we are seeing the cost of heating our homes rise, but how great will be the hardship when enough power cannot be generated? It is estimated that some 250,000 people in Britain have died from the cold in the last ten years. In contrast there have been around 10,000 heat related deaths over the same period of time.

Setting aside such local concerns and looking at the situation from a global point of view, the warmists love to talk of deserts being created and peoples displaced as sea levels rise and land can no longer be farmed. The problem for them is that the models that they have used to generate their predictions have failed to work; the changes predicted are not happening. This does not stop them ascribing every significant weather event to anthropomorphic climate change. It is quite amusing to hear weather forecasters talking of unprecedented events and then telling us when such a thing last happened. I recently read a newspaper article which asked the question ‘Arctic Ice Melt; Is the North Pole Going to Melt entirely?’ This was published on Thursday 5 April 1923. Arctic ice melts are a normal and recurring event. 

Climate change happens and has always happened. It should also be remembered that CO2 is needed for life; plants love it! Man may be a destructive force on earth but not in the way the warmists are describing.

The costly policies that we are being forced to adopt are not going to change global weather patterns. Even if some of what the warmists are predicting were to actually happen, the measures being taken in an attempt to prevent this are futile. The cost is not just monetary (think of the damage to the poorer countries of the world caused by the rush to produce bio fuels) and will, as ever, adversely impact the poor whilst benefiting the wealthy. These policies are a deluded madness.

At a local level I can see the benefits of cleaner air. I walk or cycle rather than use my car, but that is my choice. I can see that it is not going to noticeably change the air that I breathe. The exercise will benefit my health, but I will not campaign for others to do as I do; I cannot know when someone needs to use their car due to mobility or health issues.

If the resources being poured into attempting to prevent climate change were being used to help those in need then perhaps we could effect an improvement of global proportions. Changing perception will be an uphill battle though. With so many of the wealthy and powerful benefiting from the public’s belief in the great global warming scam there will be little appetite for sacrificing the goose that lays the golden egg, even if this can be proven to be for the greater good.

Global Warming

Learning from history

I love history. From Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’; through fictional novels woven around historical facts to memoirs of growing up in cultures I find hard to imagine; the places, times and experiences relayed show how much has changed about the way we live, yet how little the people portrayed differ from ourselves. Humanity may have adapted to a different way of living, but we still think and feel as our ancestors did. We still react to our immediate, personal circumstances and cope, because we have no other choice if we are to survive.

So much of the history that we are taught as fact has been gleaned from the merest scraps of information. Archaeologists and anthropologists become very excited when new finds are uncovered as they may revisit premises and further their understanding. They are not afraid to question established orthodoxies; to share and build on knowledge gained elsewhere. They will interpret the artifacts, location and any other information available from elsewhere to establish the historical story as best they can. They make educated guesses based on what is already known; what has gone before and what we have now; they use their expertise, but do not try to claim that they can explain everything fully. It is often the unknown, the what might have been, that makes the tale so compelling.

More recent history benefits from information preserved in writing. The oldest scripts would have been written by the very few scholars; wealthy or religious, educated men with time to write and resources to allow this pastime. The writers may have had employers or sponsors; they were most likely under the influence of the rulers of their age. The histories of the time need to be read in this context to be understood. The physical evidence preserved in land and grave can often tell of a more sinister undercurrent pervading the culture of the time. Social history is complex and often disregards the impact of events on the poorest yet most prolific.

As literacy spread, so too did the nature of the writings preserved. Life expectancy and leisure time increased for many allowing the slightly less wealthy and even some women to start writing accounts of their lives and times. The official records would still be produced by the powerful victors and, through the ages, some have tried to destroy accounts of histories that did not tell the tales that they wished to be perpetuated. The power of propaganda was well understood and the general population considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves.

Eminent historians are well aware that context and bias must be taken into account; authenticity can be scientifically checked but reliability is harder to gauge. Talk to a sibling about their memories of an event from a shared childhood and differences in recollection become apparent. When a history is recorded it is from the perspective of the writer whose own recollections will vary over time.

With the advent of the internet it sometimes seems that we can research the true facts with just a few clicks. Unfortunately the very opposite is too often the case. The hidden agendas of the powerful come into play as their influence and subterfuge skew the perceptions of the general population, still considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves. One of my pet grievances is the way in which global warming, now referred to more accurately as climate change, has been presented to the public over the past thirty or so years.

I am not an expert in science or climate science, merely an interested observer. I can see the sense in not polluting the soil where we grow our food or the air that all living things need to survive. I understand the benefits of biodiversity and the importance of being good stewards during our time on this earth. What I object to is the pervasive anthropomorphic climate change industry and the lies woven as facts to influence decisions made by the wealthy countries of the world to financially benefit the few at a significant cost to so many.

The Natural History Museum in London has a display in it’s dinosaur section showing temperature fluctuations over millions of years. It is clear that the earth’s climate changes regularly and has always done so, even before man walked this earth in his present form. These climate changes are very gradual in terms of a human’s lifespan but obvious in the geological evidence that exists. Keeping detailed records of temperature, rainfall and other weather phenomena are a very recent practice (from around a century ago) and the data collection methods have changed over even this short period of time making reliable, scientific comparison tricky. Examples of extreme weather are mentioned in some historical documents but these do not provide a clear picture (mentions refer to the effects of the Little Ice Age which was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period but climatologists and historians working with local records cannot even agree on either the start or end dates of this period just a few hundred years ago).

Given that this is a controversial topic in which I have an interest, I will save my opinions on recent climate change pronouncements and their impacts for another post. I see it as a prime example of the wealthy and powerful trying to force their opinions on a gullible public with a clever mix of carefully placed publicity and misinformation. More than anything though, it is a lesson in how history can be skewed to suit the influential of the time.

It can be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the truth will be uncovered by those who are capable of unearthing the evidence and interpreting the facts with critical and impartial deliberation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can learn from history if we open our eyes to how and why it has been written. Our descendants may well look back on our gullibility and wonder how we could not have questioned what was being done ‘for our own good, and that of our children’. I hope that they do not judge us too harshly for not taking more affirmative action to prevent the inevitable impact of our inaction; for passively complying with the wishes of those in power.

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Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 4

Easter Sunday is a day of joyful celebration for Christians around the world. On this day we remember that our God defeated his enemies with love. For all those who ask for proof that God exists we can point to Jesus. Here was a man who could turn water into wine, heal the sick with a touch and raise the dead. Ordinary people heard him speak, saw what he could do and followed him in their thousands. The leaders of the church and state were angry at his popularity and terrified of his power. They had him put to death as a criminal but he rose from the dead. He defeated all of his enemies without harming any of them. He harmed their power and their wealth so they tried to stop him. They failed.

I am sometimes asked how I know that God exists. Do my questioners wish me to perform a miracle? If I were to heal a sick person then they would claim that it would have happened anyway. They would look for a scientific quirk or claim that the person had not really been sick. If I were to generate some wonder such as turning water into wine then they would claim I was doing some clever magic trick. If a person is determined not to believe in God then this sort of performance will not convince them. I would not be able to prove to them that God exists no matter what I did; they would always find some reason or excuse why the outcome had not been enabled by God.

Faith is defined as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. When I was growing up and started to ask questions about God and biblical teaching, much of my confusion centred around the difficulty of trying to prove facts. How could I know that the answer I was being given was correct when so many of the premises seemed hazy and disputed? I was told to look to the bible and found contradictions. I was told that this was due to the way the book had been written so long ago, put together by a committee, interpreted over time and eventually translated from the ancient language in which it was written. Given all of this, it is no wonder that some of it can be a bit tricky to understand.

I now read the bible as a guide book rather than a rule book. It provides historical context and accounts of lives that we can learn from. It also provides beautiful poetry and stories. It is a valuable resource and should be used to offer help and comfort. I do not like to see it used as a reason to condemn people; I do not believe that we have any right to judge others. If a person chooses to follow God then Christians should welcome them as Jesus did. If a person chooses not to follow God then they should be free to make that choice.

Some of my atheist friends cannot see how I can be a Christian and still love science. This is my explanation of how I see things. When I look around at the cosmos I see order. The interrelationships between the largest galaxies, their solar systems and planets is awesome. On earth we have the sun and moon affecting the life cycle of every living being and every living being affecting all others. From the largest predators to the smallest micro organisms, all have an important role to play in maintaining the balance of life. When something is damaged, be it a forest burnt down or a child cutting their knee in a fall, nature will try to heal itself if left alone.

I do not believe that this perfect order is a coincidence. I believe that, if the world we live in was initially created by a big bang, then God made that happen. In the most simple terms, I see God as a scientist and his creation is so vast and amazing that I am not capable of understanding it all. There are a great many things that I do not understand but accept; particle physics sounds fascinating but I have never really grasped it fully. Me being able to understand, explain and prove something is not necessary for that thing to exist.

God has done many things in my life, personal things, that have proved to me that he exists. He has healed a sick child when the medical experts told the parents that there was no hope. He has spoken to me when I have talked to him. Just as a young child will feel more comfortable and confident performing on a scary stage knowing that their parent is sitting, unseen in the audience willing them to do well, so God watches over my life. If I go to a party with my husband I do not need to hold on to him throughout the event to know that he is there. If I need him then I know that I can turn to him for support. Thus it is with God.

To those who seem hell bent on removing a belief in God from the world because of the harm that men acting spuriously in his name have wreaked I would ask them to consider the comfort that God offers those who believe in him, who aim to live in love as Jesus taught them. Why would the atheists wish to remove such an important element of someone’s life just because they disagree with the premises of the faith? We should not be afraid of something just because we do not understand it and we should not ridicule or condemn others just because we disagree with their beliefs.

I will try very hard not to judge, to be tolerant of disparate views and accepting of others choices. I will try to live my life showing love to myself and to others. I wish you all a very Happy Easter.

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Staying healthy

I have a friend who believes that those who can afford to have a duty to buy the best quality meat and organic vegetables that they can find to encourage production of these types of food stuffs. This same friend takes the most varied cocktail of drugs of anyone I know in an attempt to keep herself as healthy as possible. She has many health issues and spends a great amount of her time dealing with these. She and I do not see eye to eye on many of her theories around consumption and it’s effects on the human body.

I think that our bodies are amazing. To survive we must eat and breath yet, in our modern world, both our food and our air are polluted. Thankfully we have inbuilt systems for detoxification and we seem to be able to cope with the small quantities of poison that we consume or inhale. We can assist this process by exercising regularly and by keeping our bodies well hydrated. Beyond this, a bit of common sense in what we consume seems to be enough to keep most people in a state of reasonable health.

I am not a good cook. I don’t enjoy preparing food and the meals that I produce tend to be fairly bland. This is partly down to my lack of confidence and skill in this area, and partly down to the varied tastes of my family which limits what we can eat. One of my sons likes meat and strong flavours, dislikes a wide range of vegetables, and gets bored being fed the same thing too often; my other son dislikes strong flavours and likes to know what he is eating so is often unwilling to try anything new; my daughter dislikes fish, meat, certain vegetables and salad. Trying to please everyone is a challenge as I am not willing to produce different meals at one sitting.

I use a lot of fresh ingredients and cook mainly from scratch. I do use some jars of sauce for flavour and a few of my daughters vegetarian alternatives come from a frozen packet, but most of what we eat contains only basic, recognisable foodstuffs that I have chosen and added. I do not concern myself with brands unless there is a notable difference in taste. As much of the food is mixed up together in the cooking anyway, I buy what is on offer.

The recent horse meat scandal did not disturb me too much as horse meat is probably better for us than much of the offal that goes into food from other animals. It is always a concern to hear that creatures reared for consumption are fed a variety of chemicals to promote easy health and fast weight gain, but the chemical fertilizers and sprays that promote growth in vegetables are already in the human food chain through animal feedstuffs. We are told that organic vegetables are no better for our health than the ordinary, mass produced variety and that vegetarian alternatives to meat are as full of flavourings and additives as a cheap burger or sausage. I do not dispute that these things are bad for us, only that we have to eat something and the alternatives may not actually be that much better.

What we can do if we wish to stay healthy is to exercise more. Physical exercise will make our vital organs function more efficiently, speed up digestion and help our bodies to flush the harmful chemicals out. My children may not appreciate that I send them to school on the bus rather than  driving them, which would be much cheaper, but the required walk to the bus stop and then on to school and back will help to keep them healthy (complaints about sore backs due to heavy bags of books notwithstanding).

I am fascinated by the scientific studies that have found links between what we think about our health and how healthy we are. In certain situations, participants in studies have been given placebos but told it is a curing drug and have subsequently been cured. It is obvious that not all illness can be cured in this way, but I believe it shows that attitude is vital for good health. There are times when we are ill and our bodies tell us that we need to rest; allowing a time of rest and recovery is sensible and important. However, I also believe that we can think ourselves more ill than we are. There seem to be a lot of people who, for no apparent reason, seem to come down with every bug and virus going. There are others who manage to avoid most minor illnesses or who can just keep going through the sniffles and aches. I cannot put myself inside anyone else’s head to know how they feel, but I do wonder if some are more prone to illness than others or if they just believe that they are less healthy.

I have never been one to use the mass of antiseptic sprays and wipes that are promoted for hygiene in the home apart from in the bathrooms. I think this worries my friend. She disinfects surfaces with fervour, replaces scratched items which may harbour bacteria and does all in her power to keep dirt from her home. I have a much more relaxed attitude to these things. A bit of hot water and soap plus a sensible attitude to hand washing does me. If we ingest a bit of dirt our immune systems will be strengthened. Bacteria can fight infection as well as cause it. I would rather not cover the surfaces of my kitchen with yet more chemicals.

I realise that it is easy for me to have a fairly laissez faire attitude to food and hygiene when I have the good fortune to have a robust and healthy family. Good health should never be taken for granted. Time spent working to maintain it may not always be fun, but is a worthwhile investment. I should probably also invest a bit more time in improving my cooking skills.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid, from the Harvard S...

A Wilful Waste

Sitting outside my house I currently have two sacks full of clothing awaiting a charity shop collection; two black boxes containing assorted bottles, cans, jars and paper; a large wheelie bin full of cardboard and plastic containers; a wheelie bin for the difficult to compost garden waste; and a couple of general rubbish bins. All of these containers will be emptied by the large vehicles that drive through our village each week. Although I abide by the rules and ensure that the items we wish to dispose of are cleaned and sorted as required, I have mixed feelings about recycling.

Where possible and easy I will try to reuse what I can. We have compost bins and a wormery at the bottom of the garden which deal with our kitchen, garden and poultry waste; we shred much of our paper and use it as a nesting material for the chickens; the plastic bags that we bring our groceries home in become bin liners; leftover food is reused in another meal. However, we still need to dispose of large quantities of items, mainly packaging from the food and drink that we consume, so we do use all those boxes and bins that we keep outside.

My main quibble with recycling is the cost to the environment against the benefits gained. The collection lorries need to be manufactured and fuelled; the bins and boxes need to be made and distributed; once collected, the rubbish needs to be sorted and processed, all of which uses power and other resources. There is also the issue of where the processing takes place. I question whether the environmental cost of transporting the waste is justified. I like the idea of recycling but am not convinced that it is worthwhile – that it makes sense. Of course, if we do not reuse or recycle then rubbish still needs to be dealt with. This is generally done more locally, with landfill sites or processing plants in most parts of the country. Nobody wants to live near these places due to the smell and traffic; minimising the need for them is one of the stronger arguments for recycling. The emotive messages that we are bombarded with about saving the planet are too easy to discredit.

I find environmental campaigners irritating. I am happy to try to be a good citizen; I understand that we are just one part of an interrelated, natural world and that we all benefit if we care for what is around us. Cutting down on pollution, lowering consumption and keeping ourselves healthy all makes sense. Unfortunately, so many of the methods we are encouraged to adopt do not.

The government in the UK spends a great deal of the money collected in taxes subsidising what it calls renewable energy sources. We are fed the message that solar panels or wind turbines generate power from sources that are freely available. The cost of these is not made clear. All devices must be manufactured, transported, put somewhere and, eventually, disposed of. What is the cost to the environment of that? We are rarely told how much electricity is actually generated by these devices in their lifespan compared to the resources required in their manufacture and disposal.

There is also the issue of who is really making money from the power generation such as the wealthy landowners who rent out the fields where the wind turbines are located. When a government subsidy is available companies will spring up to supply the product. How many of the solar panel manufacturers and fitters will cease trading when the government wishes to promote the next big idea and the subsidies are removed? There are plenty of people making money from these schemes, but it is my view that they rarely offer the full benefits cited in the long term.

It seems to have become increasingly hard to do the right thing by society. Charities now employ political lobbyists, receive funding from government to support a particular policy and spend money on advertising or other propaganda in an attempt to influence the way we behave. These activities do not offer the direct benefits to the people, places or things that I wish to support. The issue of trying to influence peoples behaviour has become quite sinister in recent years. I have a high regard for scientists but it can be so difficult now to believe scientific studies. We are given many messages on how to stay healthy. We are bombarded with advice, but there has also been a movement towards legislation – removing peoples choices and thereby forcing them to change their habits. The powerful anti smoking lobby has succeeded in changing public perception of smokers; the subsequent legislation is seen as a beneficial victory, yet it is rarely mentioned that inhalation of diesel fumes causes more cancers than second hand cigarette smoke. Where messages are incomplete and reaction inconsistent it can be hard to be sure who is really benefiting.

Funding for research seems to have skewed results in an alarming way. Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be and however tortuous the path to get there. Public health policy needs to be based on firm scientific foundation and clear benefit, not populist propaganda. There also seems to be a movement towards discrediting scientists who question orthodoxies that owe more to government policy and business interests than to advancing knowledge. Nowhere is this more apparent than in climate science which has become such a convoluted and emotive issue that it is hard to discuss at all.

Aiming to live a life that minimises the damage we cause to the environment should be simple. We can consume less, travel less, use fewer resources. I hope that there is some benefit in all the recycling. Something needs to justify allowing all those lorries to spew their diesel fumes into our air.

International Recycling Symbol 32px|alt=W3C|li...