Thursday, March 29, 2007

Holiday reading

Back from Egypt, a case study for anyone interested in how a mixture of totalitarianism, socialism and religion can transform a regional powerhouse into a third world country in half a century.

Every Egyptian seems to have a story about their youth, or maybe that of their father... set sometime before the 'sixties when Egypt was no less developed than any other Mediterranean country.

Now, there are live electrical cables dangling down the side of the sentry post at the airport, rigged into a rats nest of insulating tape, twine and a bare unattached faceplate so they can charge their radios. I shifted the bed in our hotel room, and exposed an open mains socket, without faceplate but with live wires twisted together and taped off. The thought of how a British health and safety inspector would react made me leave an especially generous tip when we left, that and the nagging suspicion that multi-lingual graduate-caliber people shouldn't be cleaning hotel rooms...

And a wonderful, friendly people they are too, though from a first glance at the streets you'd have to guess that 97% of the population is male. I had some interesting chats about Kifaya in particular and democracy struggles in general. If they do ever get a liberal and free country to live in, we'd better start shaping up.

Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing to do anyway.

I bought three books at the airport. I prefer to buy new books when travelling but on this occasion they were a mixture of old and new. I hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird since I was at school. The same simple line blinded me with tears again, 30 years later:

Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives.
James Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life was new to me, and is a clear explanation of an area of science I wanted to understand in at least this much detail. It succeeded for me where other accounts have failed.

The second world war saw the science of genetics shift from the left-wing obsession with eugenics to a preoccupation with the mechanism whereby genetic information was transferred from one generation to the next. By 1946, people thought chromosomes were the stagecoach, but what was the mail sack? DNA was too simple a chemical to transmit such complexity of information, so the scientific consensus ran. Therefore, people who suggested that DNA carried the genetic code were threatened with death and "Nuremberg style tribunals", refused publication for their ideas, and had entire websites set up to refute and confront their denialist ideas.

Ah... no. I'm thinking of something else. But there were still problems. Genetics is the most astonishing success in the science of the past half century. To have moved from a basic, tentative identification of the structure of the DNA molecule in the mid-1950s to the successful, complete sequencing of the human genome fifty years later is mind-bogglingly, awesomely, amazingly wonderful.

And yet genetic science has been fought for thirty years as a "Frankenstein" technology by the same drivelling maniacs who make papier mache puppet heads to protest against Bushitler, and who now confront climate change realists with death threats and foamings about "Nuremberg style tribunals", contributing to an environment wherein papers are not published and entire websites are set up to "refute" basic sceptical science.

And I bought the complete novels of George Orwell. I'd like to be able to say that I found new parallels between, say, Animal Farm and NuLabour, but I won't insult anyone's intelligence by suggesting there are any similarities between John Prescott and a pompous, deceitful pig in a suit.

Instead, I'll quote a passage quoted in The Principles of Newspeak - the appendix to 1984. Apparently, this can't be translated into Newspeak:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it and to institute new Government...


Anonymous said...

You might also find Schroedinger's "What is Life?" a fascinating read. This was the attempt by a world-class physicist to guess what the mechanism for the transmission of genetic information had to involve.

More to the point, it was read by Francis Crick prior to the discovery of the structure (and mechanism) of DNA.

Peter Risdon said...

Yes, it's mentioned in Watson's book as an inspiration that drew a number of physicists towards genetics. I'll have to order it.