Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The case of Jock Palfreeman

This is a story about clashes: a clash of cultures, a clash of justice systems, a clash of families; and its genesis was a clash on the streets that has resulted in tragedy for both sides. I’m sure no one knows about this outside of Bulgaria and Australia, and I suspect some will see it as a clash of two countries.

Not surprisingly, I’ve only seen one side of the story, through Australian journalists and an Australian family, though the prosecutor for the Bulgarian side was interviewed and we see footage of the victim’s father voicing his opinion on Bulgarian national television. The victim’s family refused to be interviewed by Australian journalists (from the ABC).

Basically, 24 year old Jock Palfreeman, an Australian who has spent some time in Bulgaria – enough to be familiar with its darker side – became involved in a melee when he went to the aid of a Roma (gypsy) being bashed and became the target of the attack himself. According to his account, he was knocked to the ground when hit on the head from behind, and, when he regained his feet, drew a knife to defend himself. This apparently resulted in the death of 20 year old Andrei Monov, who suffered a single knife wound under his armpit, though Palfreeman claims he has no memory of inflicting the wound, even though he admits he was wielding a knife.

There are statements from witnesses who support Palfreeman’s account of events, quite accurately, yet these statements were not admitted to the court, and Police written statements also conflicted with their in-court evidence. When the defence team requested that the original Police statements be admitted to court, they were overruled by the victim’s family, who were part of the prosecution team. Apparently, this is the norm in Bulgaria. Jock Palfreeman’s father, Dr. Simon Palfreeman, who is a pathologist, had to mount the defence case, though he hired an Australian legal team to help him.

Simon Palfreeman, who is a scientist by discipline, had never had to deal with a legal exercise of this nature before, let alone in a foreign Eastern bloc country. In hindsight, his faith that justice and fair representation would prevail could be seen as naïve. Certainly, his son has a better appreciation of the situation than his father.

In the end, Jock Palfreeman was charged with ‘Murder with hooliganism’ and the sentence handed down was 20 years. They’ve since gone through an appeal process, which is Part 2 of the programme, and the conviction was upheld. The defence team are now talking about going to the European Court of Human Rights where Bulgaria has 200 cases pending, apparently.

What I find remarkable, in Part 2, is that Jock Palfreeman has not only become acceptant of his fate, but has taken on a role of supporting fellow inmates in one the worse prisons in Europe, according to Dr Krassimir Kanev, Bulgarian Helsinki Commitee, Human Rights Group.

Part 1 and Part 2 are 30mins each, or you can read the transcripts.

Addendum: It's worth watching/listening to the 5 min interview with Prof. David Barclay, an internationally recognised forensics expert at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland (behind the Part 2 link).

Saturday, 18 June 2011

MAD RUSH by Philip Glass

Yes, something entirely different for me. If you look up my profile you'll see that my musical tastes are quite diverse: AC/DC to J.S.Bach is a broad church.

I recently acquired this CD and I can't get enough of it. I wanted to share it and I guess that's what blogs are for.

Here is a sample of the opening track called Opening overlaid with some commentary by the pianist, Sally Whitwell.

Other tracks include Metamorphosis I-V (runs about 30 mins), which Glass wrote for Kafka's famous play, and Dead Things, which is from the sound track of Hours (a film about Virginia Woolf starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep).

The title track sits in the middle and is about 15 mins long. It's like a dialogue between contemplation and exuberance - an unusual juxtaposition that works - it swells and ebbs, and it always makes me listen. I never get sick of it.

The last track is called Wichita Vortex Sutra, and, according to the CD notes, arose from a chance meeting between Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg in a Manhattan bookshop, where Ginsberg asked Glass if he'd perform a '...duo of sorts at a benefit concert for the Vietnam Veteran Theatre.' Apparently, 'The work is just as often performed with narration as without.' It has an anthem feel about it and it reminds me of Oscar Peterson's Hymn to Freedom off Night Train, but whether that's a deliberate allusion by Glass or just me, I don't know.

The instrument - the only instrument on the recording - deserves special mention, because it's an Australian-made Stuart and Sons 102 keyboard piano. Their pianos have already featured on award-winning classical CDs.

To add a bit of philosophy to this post, I will quote Sally Whitwell's impression of Wichita Vortex Sutra:

There's a solidarity in the realisation that we can fight and be heard. There is an optimism too, or even more than that, an ecstatic epiphany that brings about a surprisingly serene conclusion and a return to the ordinary, to the drive down the highway. I could talk for hours about the metaphor of the highway, but instead I think I should leave you to your own conclusions.

Addendum: Listen to Wichita Vortex Sutra

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Of Gods and Men

This is a French film by Xavier Beauvois with numerous awards to its name, including the Grand Prix at Cannes, 2010. The French title is Des homes et des dieux. ‘A powerful film’ is a well-worn cliché but in this case the accolade is totally apposite.

In Australia, we are very lucky because art house cinema still flourishes (we have art house multiplexes as well as the mainstream variety) and they largely cater for foreign language cinema and so-called independents. When I was in America 10 years ago, I noticed that art house cinema was on the verge of extinction and David Lynch even commented on its dire state at a press conference. I expect that a movie like this would only be seen in American cinema, at a film festival, despite the awards it has already received. More’s the pity because Beauvois’ film deserves a wider audience, especially when he tackles stereotypical perceptions on religion.

The film is based on real events, set in early 90s Algeria following the assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf in 1992. The militant entity, Groupe Islamique Armee, took advantage of the vacuum to wage a Taliban-like war against ordinary Muslims. The film’s narrative, however, centres on a group of Cistercian Trappist monks, known as the Monks of Tibherine, living and working in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains, 90k south of Algiers. They live an almost Franciscan lifestyle and they are an organic part of the community, which is entirely Muslim, from what we see.

It’s obvious, from the rise of Islamique Armee, that the monks are at grave risk – an early scene shows Croatians at a nearby construction site being massacred. It’s the only scene of violence in the movie, the remainder happens off-screen, but it sets the scene, juxtaposing a violent jihad against the monastic life of the monks and the ordinary village life of their neighbours. At first they are offered armed protection, but the leader, Brother Christian, refuses on the grounds that the monastery can never harbour weapons, even for protection. They are requested in very strong terms to leave by the government, but this they also refuse to comply with, believing that to leave would be a betrayal to their community. As one woman says: ‘We are the birds and you are the branch; if you leave we fall’.

This is a deeply psychological film, whereby each member of the monastery undergoes their own journey as to how they deal with the prospect of an imminent and violent death, and how it challenges their faith and their principles. This is a film where each and everyone of us can step into their shoes and ask ourselves the same questions – it’s a bloody good film.

But there is a wider message here that is very pertinent to the current climate on religion, and Islamic religion in particular. This movie is a very relevant and powerful antidote to the simplistic black-and-white view of religion espoused by people like Dawkins and Harris, who really get up my nose. From what I’ve seen of Hitchens, he exhibits a more flexible and informed point of view, despite having the most acerbic tongue. Harris and Dawkins talk exactly like politicians, who know their constituency and their agenda; Hitchens, less so.

This movie is about courage, both physical and moral, and the beliefs that people draw on when they are really tested. This is a movie that depicts religion at its worst and at its best. It completely annihilates the black-and-white view of religion that we are currently being asked to consider.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Quantum Platonism

This post is a logical extension of the previous one – a sequel if you like – and, for that reason, it should be read in conjunction with it.

One of the things I learnt, from researching for that post, was that Schrodinger was attempting something else to what he achieved. He didn’t like the consequences of his own equation. I believe he was expecting to obtain results that would reconcile quantum phenomena with classical physics and that didn’t happen. His famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment confirms his disbelief in Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s interpretation of the wave function collapse: only when someone makes an observation or a measurement does reality occur. Prior to this interaction, the quantum state exists as a superposition of states simultaneously. His thought experiment was to take a quantum phenomenon and amplify it to a contradictory macro-state: a cat that was dead and alive at the same time. His express purpose was to illustrate how absurd this was.

Likewise, he apparently wasn’t happy with Born’s probabilities, yet it was Born’s insightful contribution that actually gave Schrodinger what he wanted: a connection between his quantum wave function and classical physics. To quote Arthur I. Miller in Graham Farmelo’s book, It Must be Beautiful; Great Equations in Modern Science:

[Born’s] dramatic assumption transformed Schrodinger’s equation into a radically new form, never before contemplated. Whereas Newton’s equation of motion yields the special position of a system at any time, Schrodinger’s produces a wave function from which a probability can easily be calculated… Born’s aim was nothing less striking than to associate Schrodinger’s wave function with the presence of matter. (My emphasis)

I think this is the key point: Born was able to provide a mathematical connection between quantum physics and classical physics via probabilities. The fact that these probabilities agreed with experimental data is what cast Schrodinger’s equation in stone and gave it the iconic status it still has in the 21st Century. As Wikipedia points out: Schrödinger's equation can be mathematically transformed into Richard Feynman's path integral formulation, which is the basis of his QED (quantum electrodynamics) analytic method, and the current ‘last word’ on quantum mechanics.

I re-read Feynman’s ‘lectures’ on QED after writing my post and one can see the connection clearly. But it’s Born’s influence that one sees, rather than Schrodinger’s, which is not to diminish Schrodinger’s genius. His attempt to create a ‘visualisable’ wave function, as opposed to Heisenberg’s matrices, is what set the course in quantum mechanics for the rest of the century.

But whilst Schrodinger and Einstein argued over the philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics with Bohr and Heisenberg, Feynman (a generation later) was dismissive of philosophical considerations altogether. In a footnote in QED, Feynman argues that the probability amplitudes are all that matters, and that the student should ‘avoid being confused by things such as the “reduction of a wave packet” and similar magic.’

If Feynman professes a philosophy it is by this credo:

‘I’m going to describe to you how nature is – and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it… So I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd.’

However, the discontinuity between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics that arises from a ‘measurement’ or an ‘observation’ is hard to avoid. As I said in my previous post, it is entailed in Schrodinger’s equation itself, because the wave function is continuous yet all quantum phenomena are discrete. Roger Penrose, and others (like Elwes, quoted in previous post) point out that Schrodinger’s wave function is continuous until the quantum phenomenon in question is physically resolved (observed), whence the wave function effectively disappears.

What this tells me is that everything seems to be connected. It’s like nothing can come into existence until it interacts with something else. But it also implies that the quantum world and the classical world – what we call reality – are distinct yet interconnected. It reminds me of Plato’s cave, where our reality is akin to the ‘shadows’ projected from a quantum world that only mathematics can describe with any precision or purpose.

Our reality is a veneer and the quantum world hints at a substratum that obeys different rules yet dictates our world. It’s only through mathematics that we are able to perceive that world let alone comprehend it – particle smashers play their role, but they only provide windows of opportunity rather than a panoramic view.

This is a subtly different concept to the ‘hidden variables’ philosophy proposed by David Bohm (and some say Einstein) because I’m suggesting that the quantum world and the classical physical world obey different rules.

In a not-so-recent issue of New Scientist (30 April 2011, pp.28-31) Anil Ananthaswamy explains how different parties (Mario Berta from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Robert Prevedel of the University of Waterloo Canada and Chuan-Feng Li of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefie) have all reduced the limits of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle through quantum entanglement.

Their efforts were apparently in response to theoretical suggestions by 2 Dutch physicists, Hans Maassen and Jos Uffink, that information gained through quantum entanglement (knowing information about one entangled particle or photon axiomatically provides information about its partner) would affect the limits of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. For example: if 2 particles go in opposite directions after a collision, they theoretically have the same momentum, yet Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the information would be necessarily fuzzy, juxtapose knowing its position. However, measuring the momentum of one particle automatically gives knowledge of the other that subverts the uncertainty principle for the second particle.

Entanglement is an example of quantum interaction that classical physics can’t explain or even duplicate. That there appears to be a correspondence between this and the uncertainty principle supports the view that the quantum world obeys its own rules.

In my introduction, I suggested that this post needs to be read in conjunction with the previous one. This post focuses on the philosophy of quantum mechanics whereas the previous one focused on the science. Whereas the philosophy of quantum mechanics is contentious, the science is not contentious at all. That’s why it’s important to appreciate the distinction.