Subatomic particles: the musical!

EDL supporters have been ridiculed, Jeremy Kyle has been put to music, and now this, from the Symphony of Science: the Quantum World, autotuned for your pleasure.

I’m increasingly siding with Leibniz. This really is the best of all possible worlds.

Pins and needles

As someone whose cynicism borders on belligerence—and as a regular reader of Ben Goldacre (see Bad Science in ‘Onward clicks’)—my recent visits to a Chinese medical practitioner and acupuncturist are, to say the least, a little surprising.

I am not a doctor, nor will I ever be one, and it’s because of this that I decide to put matters concerning my health into the hands of those that are. You know the type: people who’ve completed medical school, passed examinations, practised medicine, built up experience, wear a white coat and a stethoscope. Real dyed-in-the-wool ‘doctor’ types, like.

I am less inclined, then, to believe in the healing power of a magical badge, for example, or a homeopathic ‘tincture’. These things aren’t medicine, I say to myself, they’re make-believe nonsense that prey on the irredeemably bewildered. I know these things to be true, and yet …

How it came to be so

My knee was injured (note the passive voice) nearly two years ago now, when high-spirited festival antics saw my left leg involved in a Six Nations, Calcutta Cup-type incident. Unfortunately, my effete vegetarian—then vegan, in fact—frame was unable to ride the tackle, and it resulted, I much later came to discover, in a slight but not insignificant tear to my meniscus. I was told by the medical staff at the festival that it was a just a slight sprain that needed rest, so off I hobbled to recommence my (now somewhat impaired) carousing.

In the time between now and then I’ve undergone consultations, x-rays, physiotherapy and an MRI scan, and whilst the diagnosis of a torn meniscus remains constant, the rehabilitative treatment suggested has come in many, often conflicting, forms, such as:

  • ‘Exercise until it really tears, then we’ll slice you open quick as a flash.’
  • ‘Exercise? Only if you want to end up in some kind of wheelchair.’
  • ‘Listen, chap, it’s isometric exercise that’ll sort you out, and no mistake.’
  • ‘Isometric exercise? Never heard of it, sonny.’
  • ‘Oh, yeah, you can swim okay, but remember ye this: only front crawl.’
  • ‘Swim away, my boy! Let’s go together—have you brought your trunks?’

Faced with conclusions so at odds with each other made knowing how to progress pretty much impossible, so after a small amount of deliberation and a considerable amount of persuasion, I decided to give acupuncture a try.

Pointy, electrified needles

I suppose this chain of events is fairly commonplace: become disillusioned with western medical practices, try something different. After all, everyone is concerned about their health—some more than others, I admit—so if one medical approach fails, why not try another? The important thing is to feel that you’re doing something about an otherwise intractable problem … I think.

~ ~ ~

Step 1: Diagnosis
Where x-rays and MRI scans are discussed, Cantonese is spoken and a pasty and increasingly nervous white boy sits anxiously clawing at the bed, waiting for translation.

Step 2: Needles
Where needles are (only relatively) painlessly stuck into your body at various depths. An electric current is then sent through the little rascals until your leg is a jabbering all over the place.

Step 3: Cupping
Where, once the needles are withdrawn, a burning ball of flame is jabbed into a wooden cup and extinguished. The cup (now emptied of air) is then placed on your leg where, because of the vacuum, it stays.

Step 4: Herbs
Where some expensive brown herbs are placed in a paper case, put on your leg and then wrapped up in a bandage.

~ ~ ~

The acupuncturist in question has been plying his trade for 40 years now, which, when added to the 2000 or so years that the treatment has been practised in China, suggests (I like to think) that somewhere, somehow there’s an element of truth to it. Whether the so-called ‘meridian lines’ are involved is anyone’s guess, but even if it’s something as simple as a muscle reacting to having a bloody great pin stuck in it, if it works, who cares, right?

If it works

My fear, I suppose, is that it’s effectiveness might lie in that most elusive of human analgesics, the placebo effect, and that by remaining so sceptical about anything that lacks peer-reviewed proof, I’m effectively denying myself access to this relief. I mean, surely the placebo effect can only work if you refuse to admit its necessity in the first place? Otherwise we’d all be walking around in fugs of personal ecstasy 24/7 and no one would get any work done.

Of course, this thought trajectory results in a Catch 22-style paradox whereby the treatment can only be effective if I disprove the effectiveness of the treatment, so I’d much rather just carry on with the sessions for a bit and see how it goes …

Should it turn out to cure my ills then I will donate my heartfelt thanks to charity.

DIY black-and-white negative developing

I’m very much a fledgling photographer: unsure of the processes, mystified by some of the terminology, and none too accomplished. Because of this, my photographs are often governed more by good fortune than sound judgement, and I’m always quietly surprised when one of my efforts turns out quite nicely.

Given this relative ignorance, then, my decision to blunder into the jargon-filled, process-heavy world of DIY negative development may look a little rash, but spurred on by a friend in the UK already chatting development tanks, stock solutions and stop baths, I thought it was worth a crack.

In a fit of purchasing fervour, I bought most of the required bits and bobs over one weekend, spending about HK$600 in the process. The rest of the kit was acquired over the following week for around HK$200 more. It was then time to work out what the devil I was supposed to do with all these unusual new playthings. The internet beckoned.

There are many in-depth and accessible explanations of DIY development on the internet—many with step-by-step instructions, images and even videos—but after reading a few of these tutorials it soon becomes clear that, like snowflakes, no two explanations are alike. These variances are in part down to what combination of film, developer and fixer is being used, and are in that sense somewhat inevitable, but even folks using the same chemicals and equipment will subtly tweak their methodology to suit their own needs.

This made my initial research slightly bewildering, but with persistence I read on, and eventually a few common threads started to emerge. It was then just a matter of concocting my own mishmash methodology and hoping, praying, pleading for the best.

Should anyone wish to do the same, here are some invaluable resources:

Well, anyway, enough of this chatter, this is what my first batch turned out like, and, for the record, this is how I did it:

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The Flat Earth Society

A map of Earth according to FET

I’ve become oddly obsessed with The Flat Earth Society website of latewhich is a work of such unbridled idiocy that I feel sure only an intellectual powerhouse can be behind it. I initially thought that it must be a hoax, but after idling a few lunchtimes away trawling the forums, I’ve now been convinced of its all-too-disturbing veracity.

Basically, as the name suggests, these folks believe that the Earth is flat, not spherical, and they validate their assertions by concocting a number of slightly differing theoretical perspectives, which can be broadly grouped together under the umbrella term ‘Flat Earth Theory’ (FET). Armed with this ersatz ‘theory of everything’, society members can explain away gravity, satellite imagery, seasons, long-distance air travel and much more besides, and I can’t help but find their obdurate belief in FET strangely compelling.

One of the more generally accepted theories in FET circles is a process called Universal Acceleration (UA), which is used to counter the troubling notion of the Earth’s gravitational field. In UA, the Earth—disc-shaped, flat and surrounded on all sides by a 150-foot wall of ice protected by specially-appointed guards—is travelling upwards through space at a fixed speed equal to 1G, meaning that when you jump in the air, the ground comes up to meet you, rather than you descending to meet it. It really is ingenious stuff.

Those few who try to unsettle the members’ quasi-religious faith in FET—usually by citing scientific evidence, however flimsy—are forced to confront the self-fulfilling prophecy that drives the society forward, which basically posits that anything outside of FET is conspiracy, and is therefore inadmissible as evidence. A more watertight exposition of self-denial you are unlikely to find, and it is demonstrated ad nauseum by the society’s more stalwart members.

Prior to activating this escape clause though, the members usually refer the query to the FAQ section—a sacred enclave of the website where the central and immovable tenets of FET are carved in stone. For many of the members, this knowledge bank is irrefutable, and serves as an essential resource when it comes to defending FET from attack. Once theories enter the FAQ, they are enshrined in a self-perpetuating truthfulness, however ludicrous that may seem to an external observer. Here, for example, are some of my favourites:

Question: “NASA and other world space agencies have pictures of the Earth from space, and in those pictures the Earth is clearly a globe; in this day and age, hasn’t it been proven beyond any doubt that the Earth is round?”

Answer: NASA and the rest of the world’s space agencies who claim to have been to space are involved in a Conspiracy to keep the shape of the Earth hidden. The pictures are faked using simple imaging software.

Question: “What about Lunar Eclipses?”

Answer: A celestial body, known as the antimoon, passes between the sun and moon. This projects a shadow upon the moon.

Question: “What about the stars, sun and moon and other planets? Are they flat too? What are they made of?”

Answer: The sun and moon, each 32 miles in diameter, rotate at a height of 3000 miles above sea level. As they are spotlights, they only illuminate certain places. This explains why there are nights and days on Earth.

If you should have the gall to doubt these ‘facts’—and many do—you are either dubbed a conspirator or referred back to the FAQ for further schooling, which in a fairly neat way renders all debate with the members entirely pointless. For those belligerent few who do choose to persevere, the message is unambiguous: persistence is futile.

God bless the internet.