Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Black and white

The saddest thing I read last week was an article in New Scientist about the environmental damage being caused by AIDS in Africa, particularly in Malawi. I spent several very happy years in Malawi; it's a country of spectacular mountains, lovely beaches and friendly people. It was known then (and, I see, still is) as The Warm Heart Of Africa. Now, as if the direct human consequences of AIDS on people wasn't bad enough, the country's natural resources are threatened. The conservation workers and National Park staff are dying, and people who can't afford conventional treatment for AIDS are over-exploiting medicinal plants. And, in some areas, the forests are suffering as a result of the relentless demand for coffins.

While I was pondering on the unfairness of all this, happening in the country where my children went to school, there was an item on the news about the Beckams' arrival in Beverly Hills. And there, in all its staggering extravagence, was Victoria's new Bentley, being delivered on a trailer, resplendent with its monogrammed wheel rims. A gift, apparently, from charming neighbour Tom Cruise. That'll be the Cultinental model, then.

Gosh, it's a world of contrasts. Anyway, there's some appropriate Malawian music in the sidebar. It's a warning about AIDS from the Kasambwe Brothers. For more music from the still warm heart of Africa, visit Pamtondo.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The Politics of Gravity

Not a classic helping of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue last night, but worth it if only for Jeremy Hardy singing the words from Radiohead's Creep to the tune of Grandma We Love You, and Tim Brooke-Taylor's alternative opening sentence for the Da Vinci Code: "Leonardo awoke with a sneeze, and realised he had a code."

I was reminded last week that it's now four years since Research Councils UK, the "strategic partnership" of the UK’s seven Research Councils, announced that the Councils intended to solve, within a few years, the problem of "What is gravity?"

The Save British Science campaign group said, in evidence to the Select Committee scrutinising the activities of RCUK: "It is absurd to propose that officials in Swindon can dictate that where Newton and Einstein reached the barrier of their genius, the Research Councils will nevertheless "solve" the question "What is gravity?" within the next few years. Whatever theoretical and experimental breakthroughs are taking place at the moment, it remains an extraordinary claim."

Not that being situated in Swindon is a bar to greatness (although Swindon's website only lists Billie Piper, Diana Dors and Melinda Messenger as being famous people from that town). But a little modesty would have been appropriate. Isaac Newton himself wrote: "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Anyway, I'm wondering how the Research Councils are getting on. I've just checked the website, and there's no indication there that an answer is imminent. I think we should be told, though; gravity is a weighty matter.