Posts Tagged ‘Environment & science’

Is There Any Need For Sustainability?

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

I have recently read Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet“.  It proposes that we refocus how we manage our economies to take into account the limits on the earth, but is rather vague exactly how we should do this – relying on less consumerism, more community-based activities and public ownership, but without answering the central question of how and who pays for all of these things.  He accepts that some of these things are already available and people are involved in community activities, but that they are small parts of society, yet he then brushes over the fact that these are currently a minority precisely because most people do not want to work in their allotment or do yoga.  This core structural issue is at the heart of the problem and is the hardest part to change – we are taxed so we must work, so there is insufficient time available to do many of those fulfilling things in life, so we must consume to make up for the time we do not have and chose a few hobbies for the little spare time we have to keep us sane, yet more public ownership and livelihoods simply increases the tax requirement etc etc.  However, what the book does usefully do is focus on the question itself, i.e. how to have sustainability and continue with a market economy and addresses the concerns posed by the classic book of Meadows et al of “The Limits To Growth”  from the 1970s in a new millennial context, without actually adding much to the basic concept that the earth has limits and while we are still within these boundaries today at some point not very far in the future growth in population and resource use because of economic growth will bring these constraints into play, which arguably is the same problem raised by Thomas Malthus in 1798.  Tim Jackson essentially says we must reduce economic growth, accepting that this runs counter to the way the economic discourse is built.  So what is the issue with sustainability and economics?

Sustainability is a key concern in the 21st century.  The Brundtland definition of sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987).  This can be further clarified as the concept that “the current generation does not have the right to consume or damage the environment or the planet in a way that gives its successor worse life chances that itself enjoyed” (House of Lords, 1999).  However, while the understanding of the environment has increased in the last 100 years, mainstream economics as used by policymakers remains based on ideas developed by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of the 18th century, as expanded by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century.  This raises the issue of whether economic analysis needs to change better to address sustainability in environmental policy response.

Mainstream economic analysis is based on utilitarianism.  This assumes that individuals are rational economic actors whose primary purpose is the self-interested pursuit of happiness, or utility, and that the best route to this end is through the purchase of those goods and services they want at rationally negotiated market prices.  Therefore, when considering welfare, policymakers should arguably consider the aggregate effect of these transactions in an economy, together with the market prices paid, and that their policies should ensure “the provision of the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Bentham, 1789).  Furthermore, while acknowledging that some individuals may suffer or not reap the benefits of the market economy, “it is the price we pay for progress and the general good” (Galbraith, 1987).

The principal measurement used to inform policy is Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), which is the value of the goods and services flowing through an economy over a period of time.  As consumption provides utility, GDP is a proxy for the aggregate happiness of individuals within an economy and Government policy should, therefore, provide the conditions for growth in GDP/capita.  Other economic methods that follow include cost-benefit analysis and discounting, both of which are used to evaluate the financial impacts of specific projects or policy areas.  However, as discussed below, the goal of sustainability in environmental policy is not adequately addressed by these economic tools.

While it is assumed that the more income consumers earn the more they can purchase in the market, so increasing their happiness, evidence by Richard Easterlin found that increases in happiness become slight or negligible beyond middle income levels (Easterlin, 1972 and 2001), while Gregg Easterbrook found that even though people’s objective well-being was increasing they continued to feel life was getting worse so their subjective well-being would stay unchanged or even fall.  Similarly, Amartya Sen focuses on the capabilities and freedoms of individuals to live the life they chose as being important to well-being (Sen, 1993, 1998 and 1999).  Therefore, what matters is what people are able to achieve or do, rather than the products or services that they consume, so learning at school or university is not a matter of utility but of what people may become from having studied even as governments seek to make it into a commercial contract through Student Loans or similar financial systems.  Economic development, therefore, occurs when there are more opportunities open for people to do things they value, rather than when GDP/capita or individual income has grown.  Whereas, unsustainability occurs when individuals become less capable of doing things over time, for example health deteriorates because of air pollution or toxic waste, or the opportunity to farm is reduced due to salinization of the soil or water shortages, or freedoms are curtailed, for example when decisions are made today that preclude choices being made by successor generations, such as decisions made in this generation that affect the environment over 100,000s if not millions of years, for example nuclear power and related nuclear waste dumps like that at Gorleben in Germany.  People will, also, do things for no financial reason, for example vote in elections, tend the plants in a public space or look after someone else’s children, so we are not solely economic beings even if politicians and sociologists wish to cast us as such; in fact I would argue we are human beings first and economic animals second, third or fourth.  So a economy focussing on the capability to flourish is better than one focussed on our ability to consume, i.e. a world according to Sen is better than one based on Bentham.

Traditional measures for well-being have targeted GDP growth.  However, GDP measures material throughput in an economy and does not provide useful information on sustainability.  For example, GDP is the aggregate of monetary transactions in a country, so it excludes bartering, free and unrecorded cash services such as voluntary work for charities, or domestic activities like cooking and housecleaning.  Furthermore, it is an income and expenditure statement rather than a balance sheet, so does not account for changes in the resources of a nation, whether these are physical like forestry and mineral reserves or intangible like education, health and landscape.  Finally, GDP is a snapshot in time of the activity of an economy in totality, so neither provides information about the future nor the equitable distribution of transactions through a society now or in the future.  Understanding the distribution of wealth in economies is important as poverty can be a driver for environmental degradation, and so sustainability.

Mainstream economic analysis, including GDP, does not properly consider the impact of livelihoods on the environment.  The activities of humans through work and consumption cause changes to the environment, which can be encapsulated in the impact equation: I = P x R x T, which is a rehash of Paul Ehrlich’s impact equation.  This summarises environmental impact (I) as resulting from the scale of resource use (R) consumed by a population (P) through using particular technologies (T).  Mainstream economics treats these impacts, or disutilities, as externalities or market failures either to be ignored or to be borne equally by the whole population and environment, because they do not have direct monetary values that are easily measured.  For example, packaging in the UK is transferred from manufacturer to individuals, then to the wider population and environment when it is sent to landfill, shifting the original environmental cost from the manufacturer to the environment, which must bear the sustainability burden, and the taxpayer, who finances the costs.  However, economics dominates political discourse, because money is power and power is money, so these externalities must be monetised and internalized into economic analysis before they can inform policymaking and bring sustainability onto the political agenda.

Finally, the most complex aspect of sustainability is time and how to evaluate future costs today.  Economists utilise financial models to provide policymakers with analyses of forecasted budget scenarios, so enabling assessments to be made of the impacts of “green” standards and taxes on the economy and the cost-benefit of specific political responses.  However, this sophistication hides the fact that forecasts are based on the past, with its uncertainties, discounted back by the relevant rate of time preference. Therefore, forecasting sometimes becomes a discussion over discount rates.  However, discounting creates an issue, being that the greater the risks and uncertainties involved the higher the discount rate, so the lower the current value of future costs.  This approach is, therefore, neither equitable nor appropriate for sustainability where the well-being of future generations should be considered equally to our own.  The societal discount rate for sustainability should tend towards zero (Anand & Sen, 2000) to prevent policymakers devaluing future uncertain, but large, impacts compared to current known, but smaller, environmental problems.

These analytical problems are highlighted in the Stern report on the economics of climate change.  Climate change occurs over the long-term and contains significant uncertainties in how it might operate over this time period in terms of scale, location and timing.  Arguably, it may impact future generations more than the current one, although as successors will have greater wealth and knowledge, they ought to be better able to finance and develop technology to ameliorate any disbenefits.  These issues create problems for policymakers regarding the equitable distribution of uncertain economic costs over generations and across future global populations, i.e. sustainability in terms of costs, capabilities and freedoms over time.  Stern used an utilitarian approach that focused on “the maximisation of the sum across individuals of social utilities of consumption”, cost-benefit analysis and GDP forecasts run over 200 years discounted back at 1.4%i (Stern, 2006b).  Critics of the report advocate rates of around 3-5½% (Dietz, 2008; Dasgupta, 2006; Nordhaus, 2007; Tol, 2006).  Under Stern, estimates of the costs of climate change were of losing “at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever” (Stern, 2006a), but by using the alternative rates the impact falls to 1.4-2.5%i.  Effectively, it becomes an ethical judgement over the value of equity between generations, or sustainability – discount rates close to zero place relatively higher values on future generations, while higher rates place lower values on successors.  Or to be brutal, it uses sophistication to hide the fact that the report hinges on the gut feeling of economists and politicians over what values to place on the financial numbers, as influenced by all the baggage of individual presumptions and political leanings in making these big leaps of faith.  I have no issue with making assumptions and running complex models, but the complexity of the modelling should not be used to hide that the report is but a finger in the air, albeit a very clever one!

Therefore, economic analysis needs to change to address these problems and so better inform policymakers about sustainability.  Here are some quick thoughts on ways that these issues can be addressed.

Firstly, policymakers need to consider a broader range of statistics beyond a narrow focus on GDP.  These indicators should include both financial and non-financial data and cover tangible and intangible assets and externalities of an economy, environmental quality and the well-being of the population.  For example, assets may include values for agricultural land, mineral reserves and woodland, together with estimates for education and health.  Sustainability indicators and externalities may comprise data on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil fertility, air and water quality, and waste to landfill.  Well-being could comprise both objective and subjective measurements of well-being, targeting capabilities and freedoms as well as happiness.

In the UK, many of these are already compiled, for example net domestic product (GDP less depreciation) and greenhouse gas emissions, while a new well-being index will include environmental and sustainability measures from 2012.  For example, there is the Happiness Index, which shows the UK’s happiness declined by -10.7% from 1961 – 2005 and that of Australia grew by 21.3% over the same period, or the Human Development Index as developed by Haq and Sen, which currently ranks Australia top and the UK 22nd.  Although these statistics may be measured, sustainability perhaps needs to become central to policymaking.  For example, biodiversity indicators currently have warnings against breeding birds and plant diversity, yet these changes are not driving meaningful policy response (Defra, 2011).  The issue may be that there are too many measurements being compiled versus the relative clarity of GDP, therefore they could be reduced to a smaller number of indicators, for example ecological footprint provides a clear, measureable link between economic activity and environmental burden.  In addition, policymakers should include targets and responses for use when these limits are breached, for example greenhouse gas emissions’ targets are clear and measureable and so policy responses can be proportionate.

However, I fear that sustainability and the environment just do not rank up there against education, health and crime, for example.  This is perhaps because the questions are just too complex and the answers too difficult or wishy-washy for politicians to contemplate, so there is a need for politicians to focus on policy areas that can be addressed within the relatively short term of a political election cycle and are simple enough to be communicable to the media and electorate – a sort of knowledge elitism that goes along the lines of “that’s all a bit too difficult for you, the masses out there, just leave and trust us the politicians and our cronies to sort it out, because we know the best…there, there” with a gentle pat on the head.

Secondly, policymakers must address future uncertainties.  Utilitarianism is reductive and, using projections with suitable discount rates, provides clear choices for policymakers.  However, the environment is entangled and has many unintended consequences, so forecasts based on the past can result in incorrect predictions.  These complexities and uncertainties can cause relatively poor forecasting especially of sudden changes to environmental systems.  For example, policymakers neither predicted the collapse in the Canadian cod fisheries in 1991-1994 (NAFO, 2009) nor the credit crisis that began in 2007, both of which have resulted in significant economic and environmental changes.  No scientist predicted the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Japanese tsunami of 2011 with its devastating human, environmental and economic consequences.  Or to abuse a quote from Harold Macmillan “Events, my dear boy, events” are what make rigid policies tricky.  Therefore, economic analysis should include the effects of high impact, low probability events on sustainability and consider using a precautionary approach to prepare for such eventualities, and even if the responses and policies of those in power does not go down those low probability routes, they should build in sufficient flex into our systems to be able to adjust to new information and haul back systems from potential collapse if and when needed.  We must be wary of committing to routes that are completely fixed in stone, forever, because in a Pythonesque way “noone expects the unexpected”.  Hence, even Rory McIlroy in his amazing golf at the Congressional in the 2011 US Open hit his second shot on the 18th in round two into the lake to give him his first dropped shots and a double bogey – you just never really know what might happen.  In fact, the answer to this issue for economics may be to look at ecosystems themselves and apply understandings of environmental knowledge to financial systems.  This is an approach that Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England Director For Financial Stability, is looking at with Robert May.  They are suggesting that complex systems can be more fragile than simple ones, i.e. the Amazonian rainforest is more prone to collapse than the African savannah or a big multidisciplinary bank is more likely to collapse than, say, a small mortgage and savings focused building society. 

Thirdly, economic analysis should focus on systems and processes rather than financial outcomes.  It is difficult, if not meaningless, to place monetary values on non-instrumental things such as a beautiful landscape or a glorious sunset, or as one of the Pevensey residents said “You can’t put nature on the stockmarket” (Burgess, 1998).  This creates a problem as to get sustainability into the economic discourse and so onto the political agenda, you must monetise it, but this reduces sustainability to choices based on financial values and cost-benefit analyses while excluding non-instrumental values.  An alternative approach is to focus on the systems within economies and how economic processes impact, or are affected by, the environment rather than on the financial outcomes.  For example, these interrelationships between the environment and the economy form the basis for the concepts of the commons and ecological footprints, both of which offer alternative economic models to utilitarianism. So while the original work on the tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin was depressing, work by Elinor Ostrom has shown how a decentralised system can manage the commons effectively, together with proposing a framework for how this collective approach can be applied to sustainability in social-environmental systems (Ostrom, 2009).  Therefore, economists could focus on how to provide individuals and communities with the capabilities and freedoms to understand how changes to the environment occur, as well as the tools and powers to respond to change collectively without Government intervention and without pursuing individual, rational goals that may be negative for the common good over the longer term, i.e. selflessness over selfishness.

I see this individualistic, decentralised approach as key to the future.  However, I worry that sustainability, ecological modernisation and the environment will be all used as excuses (or justification) for greater Government and “expert” meddling in peoples’ private and business lives whether through regulation or taxation.

In conclusion, mainstream economic analysis focuses on the maximisation of utility in a population through managing GDP over time.  However, a narrow focus on GDP does not properly address sustainability, because it focuses on consumption within an economy rather than good and bad changes to its asset base, it externalizes the environmental and societal costs of economic activity and it fails to consider the capabilities and freedoms of citizens now or in the future.  Changes are needed to include indicators of changes to intangible and tangible assets, the external costs of human activities and the well-being of individuals or even happiness.  Furthermore, a less monetary approach should be adopted that analyses the processes and systems within economies and how economies, societies and environments interact and can respond to changes in real-time and over longer timescales.


Anand, S. and Sen, A. K. (2000) Human development and economic sustainability, World Development, 28 (12): 2029 – 2049, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Mineola NY, Dover Publications (reprinted)

Burgess, J., Clark, J., and Harrison, C. M. (1998) Respondents’ evaluations of a CV survey: a case study based on an economic valutaion of The Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, Area, 1998; 30.1, 19-27

Dagsupta, S. (2006) Comments on the Stern Review’s Economics of Climate Change, Available on the Internet from (Accessed August 2011)

Defra (2011) UK biodiversity indicators, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London, 20 May 2011, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Dietz, S. (2008) A long-run target for climate policy: the Stern Review and its critics, Available on the Internet from (Accessed August 2011)

Easterlin, R. (1972) “Does economic growth improve the humans lot? Some empirical evidence” in David, D. and Reder, M. (eds) Nations and Households in Economic Growth, Stanford, Stanford University Press

Easterlin, R. (2001) Income and happiness: towards a unified theory, Economic Journal, 111: 465 – 484, Available on the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Galbraith, J. K. (1987) A History of Economics, London, Penguin Books

House of Lords (1999) Management of Nuclear Waste, Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1998-99, Third Report, London, HMSO, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

NAFO (2009) Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, Canada, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Nordhaus, W. D. (2007) Critical assumptions in the Stern Review on Climate Change, Science, 12 July 2007. 317: 201 – 202, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Ostrom, E. (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems, Science, 24 July 2009: 412 – 422, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1993) “Capability and wellbeing” in Nussbaum, M. and Sen, A. K. (eds) The Quality of Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available online from (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1998) “The Living Standard” in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. (eds) The Ethics of Consumption, New York, Rowman and Littlefield

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006a) “Summary of Conclusions” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, vi – ix, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006b) “Part 1: Climate Change – Our Approach” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 23 – 40, Available from the Internet at (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. and Taylor, C. (2007) Climate change: risk, ethics and the Stern Review, Science, 317: 203-204

Tol, R. S. J, and Yohe, G. W. (2006) A review of the Stern Review, World Economics, 7 (4): 233 – 250,

WCED (1987) Our Common Future, The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Two trips to the Farne Islands (18 & 19 July 2011)

Thursday, August 4th, 2011
View To Inner Farne Island

View To Inner Farne Island

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Jay was desperate to go and see the puffins on the Farne Islands, so he insisted we went on Monday with its ominous, dark and brooding clouds.  Sure enough it began to drizzle as we drove out of High Newton-by-the-Sea.  We booked our tickets at Billy Shiels Boat Trips; we Steenbergs have always gone with Billy Shiels, while my Steenberg cousins now go with Serenity Tours.  The round trip with landing on Inner Farne cost £35 for 2 adults (£13 each), 1 child (£9 each) and various harbour fees.  There is free entry onto the Farnes as we are National Trust members but otherwise this costs extra; they generally have a good joining deal going so it is a good time to renew any lapsed memberships.  The National Trust look after the islands with quite a large number of wardens on the islands, protecting the chicks and seal pups.

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

We were late for the sailing, so had to charge down to the end of the pier as Glad Tidings was about to leave.  All Billy Shiels boats are named Glad Tidings and range from the original few which are open boats to the large Glad Tidings V, which is for the non-landing tour and is mainly covered.  We sailed on Glad Tidings III which is also partly covered but not so large.  The North Sea was quite choppy and we rolled with the waves, which I find quite exhilarating, but Jay was far less keen about.  By now it was windy, raining and the waves were getting up.

At this time of year, there were still kittiwakes with their nests perched on ledges on the cliff faces, plus a few guillemots and razorbills still either on ledges or strutting on the top of rock stacks jutting out of the sea.  Most of these can be found on the dramatic Pinnacles off Staple Island and if you come in May – June these are chocka with these auks.  As you drive past, you can see the black silhouettes of shags and fewer cormorants, breaking the skyline; often these can be see with their strange bat-like posture of holding out their wings to dry in the wind or sun as they do not have any oil on their feathers, so must hang them out literally to dry.  In the water, you will often see their snake-like heads poking out of the sea as they drift and fish along the island edges and further out to sea.  Puffins congregated on the cliff tops, huddling together against the wind that buffeted against the rocks, while kittiwakes seemed to move tighter into the nooks upon the crags where they nested. [Many more photos of birds at]

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Puffin A'flying

Puffin A'flying

Then, you drive further out to Longstone Island and the lighthouse that is famed for Grace Darling.  Famously, on 7th September 1838, Grace Darling and her father rowed out twice to Big Harcar to rescue nine survivors from the paddle steamer, the SS Forfarshire, which had run aground.  Their amazing daring made her a national heroine.  I do find it odd that you are still told all this in spite of exciting waters – some of the boats did not go out today and there were certainly few takers for the tour on the Monday!  I remember many a trip out when a child in rough waters – once we went out with my aunt and cousin from Germany when the waves were vast to the eyes of a small child, then the boatman asked us to haul a tarpaulin over us for protection from the spray.  However, whenever someone moved water coursed all over the unlucky person at the end, plus passengers were being sick over the edge.  But we got to shore safely in spite of what seemed a scary trip.

We were so wet through, with frozen hands and wet feet that we took shelter in the Pinnacle Bazaar and bought some cut-price trousers and changed into these there and then.  Oh the joy of being dry!  We nipped next door to the Pinnacle Fish & Chip Shop and sat to eat cod and chips with mushy peas (£6.25) with a warming mug of tea, with scampi and chips (£7.95) for Jay with a cup of water.  Slowly life came back into frozen hands, feet and stomach.  The batter was light, the fish fresh and succulent, the peas just right and the tea spot on.  The hunger was talking, but it was still a delicious lunch.  Afterwards, the rain had abated and we had ice creams from Coxons opposite – a 99 for me (£1.75) and a Refresher for Jay – or you can get ice creams at Pinnacles which tasted suspiciously similar to those at Coxons but cheaper at £1.20 for a 99.  Through rose tinted spectacles, this could even have been summer.

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Coxons Ice Cream

Coxons Ice Cream

On Tuesday, the day was different: no wind and a blue sky.  We decided to go again and enjoy a dry trip to the Farnes.  This time the crossing was faster and smooth, but on the downside all the boats were out so there were more grockles like us and the birds were out on the water, so on Inner Farne there were less birds onshore. 

We watched the puffins bob on the water, then either skim across the water as our boat (Glad Tidings IV) approached or break the water clumsily, running on the surface then taking flight like torpedoes flapping furiously in the air.  Puffins are the little comedians of the seabird world, with oversized feet that waddled along like clowns whacky-quacky shoes and they fly with a style that Charlie Chaplin would have approved of.  Shags and cormorants floated closer to the islands, darting under water every so often to catch a fish.  Gannets flew past in small flocks of 5 or 6, with large wings moving in slow motion elegant against the skyline, so different from the puffins.  A few guillemots patrolled the top of the stacks, while kittiwakes every clung to ledges.  [Many more photos of birds at]

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Off all the islands, but especially Northern Hares and Wamses, grey seals lazed on wrack covered rocks.  Every so often they barked at each other and a few would waddle, then slide into the water, switching from overweight clumsiness on land to fleet swimmers in the sea, poking their curious and mischievous heads out of the water, watching us looking at them.

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Then again to Inner Farne where you could enjoy the puffins again and watch the Arctic terns and their acrobatic flying and gaze at their elegant shapes.  Mothers protected nest by dive bombing and screeching a nasal kee-arr.  We enjoyed the view which shows the importance of this area to early Northumbrian power: Lindisfarne and the Celtic Christian church to the North on Lindisfarne, then the rock that was the base of Northern thanes, jarls and kings of Bamburgh Castle and the holy retreat of Inner Farne, with Dunstanburgh Castle to the South.  And of course the Inner Farne was the refuge for St Cuthbert, the most important Northern Saint, and where St Aidan came for contemplation every Easter (the Celtic Easter).

Back in Seahouses, we ate fish & chips at Lewis’ where we have eaten for many years.  The batter was light, but the fish less fresh, though the chips were good.  The peas came whole rather than mushed and my tea was forgotten.  Good but not as good as Pinnacles, which was not helped by a sign saying fresh crab sandwiches outside that were not available – we were told tomorrow, but I think it was the never reached mañana.  I did not try Neptune which is the other choice, but my sister went with her family and said it was excellent.

Lewis's Fish Restaurant

Lewis's Fish Restaurant, Seahouses

Ripon’s Flood Alleviation Scheme

Sunday, June 12th, 2011
Around a year ago, I wrote a few blogs about walking along the Rivers Skell and Ure in Ripon.  The rivers run through Ripon and circle around the ever looming presence of Ripon Cathedral on the mount at Ripon’s heart.  The rivers bring the countryside and riverine nature to the centre of city life, stopping us becoming a classic urban landscape and staying a leafy, watery, sleepy rural cityscape.  I love it.

However, the rivers do flood, particularly when both the Skell and Ure are full and the Ure backs up the Skell and into Fisher Green, a low lying area at the edge of the city.  So a major flood scheme was started late last year just as the flood season starts, so initial work was hampered by, you got it, flooding.  But after a really wet start to 2011, work has progressed decently and I felt it time to record some of the work being done.  It is not necessarily pretty, but it is community history, something which shapes all our lives – usually mundane, but nevertheless important even if much less exciting than the media titillating misdeamours of minor celebrities.

By North Bridge on the floodplain for the River Ure as it comes down from the north, the land has been landscaped to create flood walls from earth and breeze blocks to contain the water as it swooshes down.  While the arches of the bridge have been opened to allow the water to flow through into floodplains lower down, rather than building up behind the bridge.

Diggers On Flood Scheme By North Bridge In Ripon

Diggers On Flood Scheme By North Bridge In Ripon

Barriers By New River Wall On River View Road (not much of a view now!)

Barriers By New River Wall On River View Road (not much of a view now!)

As you wander through the city, there are major changes to Alma Weir by The Water Rat pub.  The weir is being lower to allow water to flow through the city more smoothly rather than building up and threatening houses in this area.  However, work is being hampered as some of the bigger houses prevent access and work on the river walls close to their properties without financial compensation – very civil community spirited.

Changes To Alma Weir On River Skell In Ripon

Changes To Alma Weir On River Skell In Ripon

As you walk to Fisher Green, the old concrete river walls have been removed and the banks repaired and covered with gabion baskets.  Similarly, earthen banks have been built around the three houses on the north bank of Fisher Green.  Lots of work is being done, but I am feeling sentimental about the destruction of the stepping stones, and I pray that they are not going to be permanently to satisfy insidous health and safety requirements.  On the downside, they have managed to dig through a sewage pipe that connects Sharow with the sewerage works, so are needing a continuous movement of sewerage by tankers from Sharow to the works.

Gabion Baskets On River Skell At Fisher Green In Ripon

Gabion Baskets On River Skell At Fisher Green In Ripon

Barrier Where Stepping Stones Used To Be - Fisher Green

Barrier Where Stepping Stones Used To Be - Fisher Green

Small Barrage Along Skell Downriver From Fisher Green In Ripon

Small Barrage Along Skell Downriver From Fisher Green In Ripon

I am sure it will all be a great success, especially as there is a new mini reservoir at Birkby Nab to hold back flood surges on the Laver, which flows into the smaller Skell to the west end of Ripon.  However, it does all look ugly with raised earthen flood banks obscuring the views for some.

Over the year, I have taken various photographs which show progress of the Scheme, and can be accessed on my Flickr sight at

Charities, The Law And Unintended Consequences

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

As some of you know, we have been looking as a socially committed but small business to give support to a charity, either Practical Action or Water Aid, and link that back to sales via the web site as a sensible way to work out the donation and also to give our customers a sense of buy-in back to this.  However, as often comes about, the law is not that simple.

Firstly, by mentioning a charity in our order acknowledgements and on our website, this link is viewed as payment for the promotional use of a charity’s brand in generating sales, rather than a gift or extra cost as we had thought about it.  Therefore, we would need to enter into a corporate-charity partnership via a Commercial Participators’ Agreement with a minimum financial commitment of £10,000.  It would be nice if our sales were that high, i.e. well over £1 million, but they are not.  So that is a non-starter.  Water Aid’s FAQs explain this well.

Secondly, VAT would be charged on the payment as it becomes a promotional service, i.e. HMRC can get their mitts onto it, but Steenbergs could not reclaim the VAT through our business as it is outside of our scope of activity and is not for business purposes, so we would get an extra 20% charged on us for HMRC’s charitable benefit.  That is another disincentive from wanting to do the right thing.

So we can donate the money to charity but we will not be able to tell you about it in a way promotionally linked to any charity.  Overall, I am pretty grumpy about the way obstacles are put in the way to prevent small businesses trying to be good.  Is charity such a bad thing?  Why are all laws and regulations created for the benefit of big business to the detriment of smaller enterprises?  Oh and by the way, yes I really am that naive and stupid.

Can come anyone come up with a solution as we still intend to do something like this as it is the right thing to be doing and is all part of who we are and want to be?  My thought is that we state that we will make donations every year at the rate of 20p per order from our website sales, then give a retrospective donation to an “unnamed” charity determined after the accounting year end by our customers.  In this case, we commit to giving the value, but because we do not gain any benefit direct from any link to a specific charity, this cannot be viewed as receiving anything in return by HMRC, i.e. it is not deemed to be a sale.

Alternatively, we could go for a more woolly “Steenbergs is delighted to be supporting WaterAid in 2011.  To find out more about what WaterAid does, visit” rather than linking in to sales.

The upshot is, however, that under UK law it looks as if Steenbergs might not be able simply to have a “named” charity linked to our web sales for the year, nor perhaps could we distribute leaflets to our customers about the charities for their benefit etc etc.  How dumb is that!

Neither Sophie nor I will be backing down on our commitment.  We just need to work out how to do this.  All help gratefully received.

Context…Social Dividends And Choosing Charities For Steenbergs Web-shop

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

So following on from my last blog, we see Steenbergs’ brand as being entangled with our range, the quality of our products and the context of these products.  Where the spices, teas and blend ideas come from tells us about different cultures around the world and how people interact with their environment, both as nature and as the human world.  Spices grown rurally in India, for example, are part of a history that stretches back into deep human history but then links back to villages and urban environments in a quickly expanding and modernising economy like India.  We must understand and smile at the strangeness of this paradox of old, rural and traditional farming mixed with modern industrial processing of spices and teas, together with the fact that they are shipped from Cochin in normal shipping containers on big containerships and not quaint sailing boats – the old and the modern, the rural and the industrial all get mixed up together in the environment of Steenbergs’ spices and teas.

This social aspect of how our retail products that we pack in North Yorkshire for sale in urban and rural shops across the UK and elsewhere, connects to internet customers almost everywhere, and links back to the Wynad region of Kerala in India or the Uva Highlands in Sri Lanka or Mananara in Northern Madagascar is hugely important to Sophie and me.  And while paying a premium of around one-third for our spices, herbs and teas generates profits that enables people to earn a living wage and reinvest into their businesses and communities, we are not sure that this is enough.  After all Steenbergs is at its heart a social enterprise and while we have very limited resources, so we cannot make much of a difference through our financial capacity, we can reach out wider to the community of people who buy our products.  We feel we must try as if we don’t make even a few small steps then the journey is never started.

We tried this once before with Peace Tea and Green Tea but it did not work because the products were not successful enough, so we would like to retry to generate a social dividend from sales at Steenbergs and believe that the best way to do this is via paying out a fixed amount from each web shop sale via to relevant charities.  We are fixing this at 20p for each web sale and will not make any adjustments to costings for this, i.e. it is a straight cost to Steenbergs and not our customers, which we will backdate to the start of 2011 – if we had done this for 2010 it would have been well over £1,000.

At the outset, as we have only really just firmed up the idea after our own flood, we are thinking of two charities – Practical Action or Water Aid.  However, in the future we would like to consider other more homegrown and smaller charities or projects, particularly those run locally and that foster genuine development like microcredit schemes rather than those that create aid dependency and those without any political or religious agenda – with smaller charities, we can make more of a difference whereas for mega-charities our donations will be just a drop in their ocean of income .  We also would like the charities to be active where we are linked with for our purchasing, so enhancing this context for Steenbergs products.  For example, from our quick scout around, we like ideas such as the Asha Trust, Grameen Bank and the Women’s Bank in Sri Lanka and Zahana in Madagascar.  But in the end, we want to hear from you what charities we could support as every year we are looking to our customers and supporters to choose one to benefit from this social dividend.

With this co-operative spirit in mind, we want people to tell us which of Practical Action or Water Aid we should all support this year and ask that you email your choice to or tell us via Twitter or Facebook, where we will also explain the choices in a little less depth.  Every year we will hold a similar collective decision, so you can help us choose possible organisations and then make a choice openly and together.

In outline, here is something about the 2 possible charities this year or you can go to their websites for more gen.

Practical Action grew out of an idea from the economist E. F. Schumacher in the 1970s that people in poverty needed technology that met their context rather than grandiose schemes coming out of the developed world.  The founders termed this Intermediate Technology and technology as being “physical infrastructure, machinery and equipment, knowledge and skills and the capacity to organise and use all of these.”  They work closely with communities and at their scale and relative to their power, knowledge and available resource and using sensible, practical ideas like treadle pumps for irrigation, zeer pots for refrigeration and nanotechnology ideas such as filters to remove contaminants and pesticides from water.  These small steps enable communities to lift themselves out of their poverty and then hopefully move out of dependency to build their own wealth.  Practical Action works in (amongst other places) India and Sri Lanka, our major two countries for supplies of spices and teas, including Biofoods and Greenfield in Sri Lanka.  There is lots more information at their website at

Water Aid on the other hand focuses as its name suggests on water and sanitation, seeking to improve communities lives by removing the scourge of contaminated water and poor sanitation which are major causes of premature death amongst infants and vulnerable adults throughout the world.  Water Aid’s vision is to transform “lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities.”  They use sustainable technologies like rainwater harvesting, spring protection and hand dug wells, together with dry pit latrines and ventilated improved pit latrines.  Water Aid is active in many countries including India and Madagascar, where we get our fantastic Fairtrade vanilla from in Mananara.  Their web site is a great source of information and awe inspiring –

Please take some time to think it all through, then come back to us for your choice and let’s try and make a difference, however small that may be.  Email Steenbergs at or call Sophie or Axel at 01765 640 088 and tell us your thoughts.

Spices, spices everywhere

Friday, May 13th, 2011

We had a visit recently from Helen Best-Shaw of FussFreeFlavours, who is a lovely lady – other bloggers welcome.  She asked many interesting questions and one of them got me thinking and that was why are we so interested in spices.  It certainly is not the money as I think we are successfully proving that there are no fortunes to be made in spices anymore.

But what it is, I think, is the sheer complexity of them.  Spices, herbs and salts are the essence of cuisine that takes food away from being the source of the raw materials of life into cooking, i.e. something that is human, cultural, social and learned rather than just a bunch of proteins, carbohydrates and fats etc.

Spices, herbs and salt have the key things that make food truly great and tickle the senses:

  1. Aroma – smell
  2. Flavour – taste
  3. Heat – temperature
  4. Colour – sight
  5. Texture – touch
  6. Context – knowledge

For me, context is one of the key things that our spices can give you.  They create a story of where the cuisine has come from – Britain, Thailand, Japan or India, for example – and a sense of our life story and what we have learnt through our travels and experiences, from other people (whether in cookbooks, websites, from mum or the TV) and through experimentation. They offer a leitmotif to our world.  Context tells us whether they are organic or not, whether the people who grew them have been fairly treated or exploited, creating a depth and connection back to farmers who have toiled to bring us these gems of flavour.

When I blend a spice, all these things get wrapped up into the experience.  For example, today I made some ras al-hanut.  It takes an age to weigh out all the ingredients and then mix them up, all of which we do all by hand.  I use a unique recipe that includes 22 ingredients and took about 3 weeks and many years to perfect.  It harks back to when we started Steenbergs in 2004, so has context for me as I remember really struggling with the blend, but it also has context as it is based on the Moroccan blend – ras el hanout  – which is the master blend of the spice merchants in traditional bazaars across North Africa and into the Levant.  It connects Steenbergs back to other spice merchants and we have been indulgent, like you should, as this is not a blend to scrape and pinch like an accountant for bits of profit here and there, it is a thing of character and blend of excellence designed to show off our prowess and balances the flavours, aromas and colours of a stupidly wide selection of spices from a ridiculously wide geographic range of countries.

So we have – galangal from Vietnam; cassia and cubeb pepper from Indonesia; ginger and turmeric from India; cardamom from Sri Lanka; orris root from Italy; paprika and saffron from Spain; black cardamom from Pakistan; dill seed from Turkey; roses from Iran; bay, caraway and fennel from Turkey; and allspice from Guatemala – all of which are blended by hand in rural North Yorkshire.  We can travel the world with our flavours and ingredients.  Then there are the chromatics of the smells, flavours and colours that are carefully balanced to sing together in harmony and create something that has a bottomless depth of gorgeous sensation that is deliciously exotic – much better than each individually and full of pure intensity.  For a little flair, we add some texture by including whole dill seeds and deep purple rose petals that add an extra dimension to a blend of powders.  Then there are the colours from the exuberant deep purple of the damask roses, the mute yellow of turmeric, the blacks and browns of black cardamom, cassia, galangal, cubebs, the greens of cardamom and bay and the reds of paprika and saffron.  All these heats and flavours and colours meld seamlessly into a flavour bomb of depth and intensity that I just love to blend up.

Or we can enjoy something perhaps more mundane like our garam masala, where you can enjoy the flavour mix as well as its context.  The recipe is based on a Punjabi recipe that has been tweaked here in North Yorkshire, then has the context of being organic and Fairtrade, so you get kit that tastes fantastic, is good for the environment and has great social welfare attributes.

And it is not just about blends of spices and herbs, but we also go that extra mile for customers, searching out variety within individual spices.  There is a vast range of peppers, from the basic black peppercorns and white peppercorns through to speciality black pepper like the TGSEB we get from friends in Northern Kerala, the Wayanad Social Service Society and the more unusual peppers like cubeb pepper, long pepper and Madagascan wild pepper.  Or you could try some of the ersatz peppers, such as grains of paradise (Melagueta pepper), allspice (Jamaican pepper), Moor pepper or our vast range of chillies, that includes the mega-hot Naga Jolokia.

But I am particularly proud of Steenbergs vanilla.  As a standard, we have delicious, fragrant, succulent and sensual Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar.  It is organic and Fairtrade, and we use these for the base of our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract as well.  Then there is variety with vanilla from Congo that has tobacco notes to it, from Tahiti that is more floral and succulent than that of Madagascar.  I just love the vanilla.  Then there is the context of these that are grown with so much patience and effort by lovely rural communities in Northern Madagascar, for example around Mananara.

For me, what becomes more amazing as time goes by is the sense of community effort that goes into these small gems that are spices and herbs.  I am not really meaning the work that we do at Steenbergs, but rather the culture, the social structures, the economies and the people that go into growing that extra special vanilla or that amazing peppercorn.  It is they that are the true heroes and heroines and we should salute them by indulging ourselves to enjoy what they have spent time and effort creating, yet they have so little.  That for me is what I mean by context and that community effort gives Steenbergs that little bit more to it than just a rigid focus on the mechanics and standards of quality and value as demanded by those faceless high street and big brand corporations.

Matcha Tea Cupcakes – Green, Healthy and Tasty Recipe

Monday, March 21st, 2011

The terrible events in Japan lay bare to us all how much we are still at the mercy of the elements, rather than completely in control of our earth.

Steenbergs Matcha Tea And Cocoa Powder

Steenbergs Matcha Tea And Cocoa Powder

So I decided to revisit my recent post on matcha tea and create these Matcha Tea Cupcakes ideal for charity events to raise money for the tsunami victims.  They are really delicious combination of matcha and cocoa, with with the cupcake tasting just of chocolate cake and the very mild seaweedy taste of the matcha in the icing complements the classic sweetness of the chocolate.  As an aside, this is great way to get some of the benefits of matcha without needing to drink a cup of slightly bitter matcha tea

Matcha Cupcakes

Matcha Cupcakes

Recipe for Matcha Tea Cupcakes

1 tsp (rounded) organic matcha tea
120ml / ½ cup milk
100g / ¾ cup plus 1 tbsp organic plain flour
1¼ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp Fairtrade cocoa powder
Pinch of sea salt
150g / 1 scant cup Fairtrade caster sugar
1 large free range egg
1 tsp Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
50g / 3½ tsp unsalted butter 

For the topping:

80g / 5 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tsp (level) organic matcha tea, sieved
2 tbsp fromage frais
250g / 2 cups Faitrade icing sugar

1.  Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.

2.  Pour the milk into a milk pan, then sieve the matcha tea into the milk.  Whisk the mixture with a matcha whisk or a fork.  Then carefully heat the milk until hot to touch but not starting to simmer.  Take off the heat and set aside.

Infuse Milk With Green Matcha Tea

Infuse Milk With Green Matcha Tea

3.  Sieve the plain flour, baking powder and cocoa powder into a mixing bowl.  Add the sea salt and then tip in the caster sugar.  Mix the dry ingredients together.

Put All The Dry Ingredients Into Mixing Bowl

Put All The Dry Ingredients Into Mixing Bowl

4.  Put the egg and vanilla extract into the dry ingredients and mix up a bit with a fork.  Chop the unsalted butter into small cubes and add to the mixture.  Mix thoroughly with an electric whisk or in a blender.  When creamed together, add the matcha milk mix and throughly mix.

Mix In The Matcha Milk

Mix In The Matcha Milk

5.  Spoon the mixture into paper cupcakes until about three-quarters up.

Pour In Mixture Three Quarters Up Cupcake

Pour In Mixture Three Quarters Up Cupcake

6.  Place in oven and cook for about 25 minutes, or until spongy to the touch.  Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack.

7.  To make the matcha icing, simply mix all the ingredients together and put a dessertspoon of the matcha frosting onto each cupcake.

Mix Together The Ingredients For Matcha Frosting

Mix Together The Ingredients For Matcha Frosting

8.  Enjoy the taste straight away.

It’s A Mad World, Sometimes

Monday, February 28th, 2011

We are developing a vanilla paste to complement Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, rose water etc. 

However, today I was sent the Specification and Material Safety Data Sheet by the guys who are going to do “the making it into a paste bit” for us.  Within this, it stated that “If Ingested: Induce Vomiting”.  On thinking this a bit extreme for a product that is already sold for human consumption to the public in shops and restaurants around Europe and the USA, I queried this statement.  The response was simple that if you ingested too much then this might be bad for you and then you should induce vomiting. 

I suspect that eating/ drinking too much Divine Orange Chocolate or smoked salmon or Mrs Kirkham’s delicious Lancahsire cheese or Coca-Cola or even our teas and so on and so on might be bad for the health and one should then induce vomiting, if it has not already started of its own accord; so why not then put health warnings on all foodstuffs that you eat this at your own risk.

It is just another symptom of our form-filling world where it is more important to tick some boxes rather than engage the brain and really think things through, i.e. businesses and bureaucrats are becoming ever more interested in covering their legal backsides than actually adding any real value.  So I am now going to buy a product that I am being told might cause “nausea and dizziness” if ingested specifically to sell to the public to ingest, so now the risk has shifted from the manufacturer to me, so it is lucky that my shoulders are broad enough to take on a bit more theoretical business risk.

Breathe The Air, Relax And Just Be

Friday, December 31st, 2010

What have I learnt through my attempts to understand the matrix that we call life, if anything?  What have I learnt by seeking to comprehend ideas that are beyond the wit of man and certain beyond my ken like the origin of species, creation, time, matter, space and the fundamental forces?  Firstly, I have learnt that trying is most of the fun and benefit as it certainly gave me brain-ache and those cogs in my head were very rusty.  Secondly, that how you see the world, the universe and life is personal to you as we do all sense reality differently, in our own way, so how we conceive of reality, the models we build to rationalise life are simply our way of seeing the world and as such are correct for us.  Hence, the old adage that “I am right and the rest of the world is mad” is actually the correct maxim for each and every one of us.  But I must beware of hubris, because I will be knocked down by many of those who read this for being but a gibbering fool; actually, a fool’s fool.

As for the science, I feel that I may be on to something in my re-jigging of the origin of species and those models I conjured for how the universe began and how time comes into being.  As for the standard model, I confess to being way out of my depth, so what I wrote is speculative and while I feel intuitively that the key is shapes and symmetries, I have no mental capacity to formulate an experiment to prove/disprove this nor the math to express such ideas; I shall continue to read popular science in this area, but humbly accept defeat, even though I did enjoy having a go.  So don’t begrudge the attempt.

However, returning to the rationale for trying these thought experiments: I wanted to consider how we sense our world and then see if you could model the evidence differently to enable us to have a new perspective on how we understand where and how we fit into our space around us.  From these thought exercises, I have learnt a few things that work for me, being: (i) everyone conceives reality differently; (ii) everyone’s reality is unique and real to them; (iii) how people and other organisms model reality is special and individual, so must be respected and protected; (iv) everyone’s model for living is impacted by their history; (v) life is about sustaining life through the adaptation of the interdependent web of living organisms to constantly changing circumstances; (vi) survival of the fittest is wrong, or at least a smaller part of how the world works than it is billed to be.

So what does that mean for society?  Are there any lessons for our socio-political environment?  Firstly, as a fundamental principle, everyone must be respected as individuals and be given the freedom to live their lives as they chose and see fit without interference from others; secondly, we are part of an interdependent web of life and every person, and species, has its place momentarily within that structure.  However, on the flipside, it means that in living your life you must consider the impact of what you do on others and so seek to minimise any negative impact you might be having on other people and organisms, while we must accept that as the living environment changes so will there be impacts on the makeup of the web of life, i.e. other people and species.  In other words, respect people’s individuality and let them be.

Does that mean anything, or is it just fatuous pseudo-intellectual nonsense of a teenage scribbler to misquote Nigel Lawson (would that I were that age again)?

I think it might.  But before we move on to that, we must understand a few other facts of life: money has no morals and so a way of living based purely on economics will be necessarily amoral (money is purely and simply one possible way of placing a financial value on an item, no more and no less); while science in its true form is neither moral nor not, those who apply science may not necessarily have morals; religion has not managed to act as a suitable counterweight either to economics or science; humankind is a part of the web of life and its purpose is not economic (in spite of what our lords and masters might wish us to believe).  Finally, as a word of warning applying ideas from science across to life can be fraught with danger as the concept of survival of the fittest has been used to justify everything from fascism through to competition in the business environment, while classical mechanics is used as a basis for much of politics for the last several hundred years (if I just put this policy or rule in place here, it will move these people around over here which will be the general good of our country or even the world; let me let you into a secret, politicians are usually be good at heart but they have no better grasp on how people and countries work than anyone else, so sometimes it seems to work and at other times it does not).

We are born free.  Everyone’s liberty and right to act, think and do as they wish should be everyone’s guiding light.  In everything you do, you should weigh up the consequences of your actions and how that impacts other people or organisms, and you should be comfortable that your gain/benefit is worth the loss/disbenefit on the other (there is no such thing as win-win in the real world, there is always a loser).  If you make a superprofit or something turns out really well for you, be sure that there is someone for whom it is less great; look into yourself and be sure that you are pleased with what you have become.  In a world where we measure everything in money, remember, also, that money has no morals and cannot be a measure of happiness, so to justify an action by a profit is no moral justification for anything.

So obviously, we need something to guide us through life or we would stand stock still and never move for fear of the consequences of what we do – that something is fairness.  Now, fairness is difficult as everyone has a different moral compass or view of what fair is, but that is okay as in most societies, we have come to the view that the best way to assess fairness is through the judgment of our peers based on the facts, whether through councils of elders, religious leaders or a legal system.

Beyond these is little else needed to underpin in society, because all ideas ranging from protection of life, privacy and property through to freedom of religion and speech and even the concept of equality can flow from these basic ideas of liberty and fairness.  Some might add equality to this, but surely that simply flows from fairness and there is no such thing as true equality as some will always regard others as being more equal than themselves.

However, what these ideas do militate against are rules and regulations emanating from a powerful central state as these fall foul of the ideas of individual freedom  and that someone else’s model for the world is more correct than that of the individual.  Furthermore, imposed rules and regulations are rarely a good benchmark for fairness, often focussing in the manner of a political science on what is possible to control and measure rather than on the morality and fairness of a given set of circumstances; a good example of this is a driving speed limit, which, while there is an excellent correlation between speed and accidents and fatality of accidents, does not tell you whether a driver is good or bad, i.e. you can have a good driver doing 45mph and a bad driver doing 35mph in a 40mph zone, so if the 35mph drives their car and crashes, are they necessarily absolved of any fault?  Of course, there needs to be a balance between having some rules in place to protect our basic freedom, but no one should be criminalised because of arbitrary rules that no one except legal or other experts knew about, i.e. there are simply to many rules and regulations in place, which has made the act of living in a modern society simply too complex for many people and you could spend your whole life checking that every step you make on your way through your daily routine does not breach some law or regulation.  No law should be anything other than obvious to most people; once it becomes really arcane then it should not be anything other than a legal fantasy.

In modern times, liberty and fairness has become a tick box exercise, which trivialises the fundamental nature of these two principles, while the number of laws, rules and regulations are simply too great, acting as a dead weight on citizens squeezing the life out of them.  Much more prominence should be given again to these simple guiding principles, as well as the capability of our fellow citizens to be able to judge what is right and proper in a given set of circumstances based upon these ideas of liberty and fairness.  Under no circumstances should someone be tried except by a jury of your peers.  In fact, while I am not a religious person and there are obviously those who are bad religious leaders, but I suggest in general religious leaders are perhaps better at judging good, bad and fair than politicians, lawyers and certainly than me; maybe it is seeing day in day out people who are good, those who suffer and those who are bad rather than meeting rule breakers in a court every day.

This focus on centrally imposed rules and regulations results in a political system that is mechanical and lacks intelligence.  A better approach could be that of nature which sees life as an interdependent web of organisms that adapts in many different ways to changes, following a few basic rules that it can tweak and adapt as the circumstances demand.  Rules should not be rigid, but must be adaptable, and life cannot be just about rules for, if it has become such, then you are focused on the false structures of an arbitrary model of life rather than living your life.

This concept of freedom flows through to taxation, which basically means that there should be as little taxation as possible as someone’s property is theirs to enjoy rather for someone else to use in a way they see fit, i.e. an individual’s model of how to spend is theirs and right for them and no one should impose an alternative model and say I can spend my money for you better.  Once again, there needs to be a sense of balance, because some things might be better arranged centrally.  However, once again, politicians and civil servants might not be best placed to spend that money as they are both seeking to impose their model of reality on others and without money they have no power.  In fact, politicians and civil servants arguably misuse their role as tax collectors, because there is really a compact between the state and citizens that a proportion of someone’s earnings and wealth can be used for the greater good, however that is provided on the basis that the state is a trustee of its citizens and so should look after that money properly and be accountable for the expenditure of that money, but clearly it regards itself as above that and so that it as a unilateral right to tax and spend with impunity.  Moreover, ever since Keynes, the state sees itself more as a munificent provider of employment rather than as a guardian of its citizens’ money, which is also arguably in the long term an economic mistake as who pays the state and has the power to bring it to account.  I am not clear in my own mind that the state has any right to tax, but it needs to tax to have power over its citizens and the power to dispense financial favours to create a dependency power over its employees and beneficiaries.

Taxation ensnares citizens and business in a real struggle to survive, where they must work perhaps until death simply to feed the greed of the central bureaucracy to pay itself and redistribute funds indiscriminately.  This is a hugely inefficient, ineffectual and cruel basis for the building of a “better” society.  There needs to be a sense of proportion to how much we are taxed and a sense of prudence and accountability for how that money is used, because at its heart that money does not belong to the state but the citizens who have originally generated that cash. 

Similarly, as you move into the commercial world, the same ideas apply and a tick box approach to employment, ethics and safety inter alia is mechanistic and rigid rather than being intelligent and flexible.  And companies should look to the consequences of their actions on other businesses and people rather than purely justifying their actions on profits.  Greed is not good.  I remain constantly amazed at how much people earn for so little real skill, or seek to charge for no real “added value”, and fail to understand how a prudential type of activity like banking and money management generates such high returns for its practitioners and such a mediocre return for its stakeholders (investors and policy holders).  I think that people are so focused on money that they forget that every action taken has consequences, but by focusing on the monetary flows, they become disconnected from the physical and moral reality of transactions.  It is a bit like watching a fight or battle and focusing on, and analysing, the energy that flows from one person as they strike the other rather than the reality that this is a fight and people are being hurt; energy like money has no morals.  Like greed, hurting another is never good.

Finally, fairness is not a scientific concept.  Science and its disciplines are strong and unforgiving areas of study, except areas such as psychology and the like.  Morality, equality and fairness do not come into the origin of species, or creation, or particle physics, or classical mechanics.  They are perhaps truly what differentiate humanity from other species as this peculiar sense of morals is not something a great white shark or Escherichia coli feels when they attack or infect a seal or person.  On the other hand, fairness, and morality in general, does enable humanity to live together.  I often wonder at how so many people can live on earth and I do feel that one of our greatest skills is to be able to get on with life through ignoring each other, then when we do come into contact with each other there are standard rules of engagement that underpin those encounters, being fairness, a sense of the core abhorrent forms of crime and hospitality.  There is then a wide range of interpretation of what constitutes fairness, equality/balance and the punishment of crimes, but we all seem to start from a common sense of good.

The closest, that science gets to morality, is mutuality.  This is the idea that species live together and depend on each other to continue to exist, so a predator cannot kill all its prey for then it would run out of food.  Similarly, subatomic particles need other subatomic particles to exist and to work together with to make bigger pieces of matter, forces and energy and so on until you get atoms that work together to make molecules, then physical things and living things etc etc.  I sometimes wonder whether this sense of mutuality has gone out of our modern society, with everything being about how much can I get for myself out of life without a thought for others; how much cash can I earn? how many things can I own? how much profit can I make? what new idea can we make a policy on and spend tax money on?  We live in a culture of “me, me, me” rather than “us” and it is not a particularly pretty sight, forgetting that there are consequences of our actions.

To conclude, science teaches us that everyone perceives existence differently.  We must, therefore, accept that no one will interpret their reality in the same way, so we must not seek to ridicule or trample on those unique ways of seeing the world.  This idea of individuality should not be subsumed by the greater weight of collective thinking or the enforcement of a stronger centralised diktat.  Conversely, we live together with other people and other species and must work together to live together without destroying this delicate mutual web of life.

Finally, I return to the idea of models.  How life is structured and how the collective model for life is built does not really matter as it is just a model, a fabrication.  We must beware of seeing only the model and becoming encaged within it.  Life is to be lived, not to be an economic slave, nor a slave to the rules nor ensnared by time and diaries.  Close your eyes, the reopen them.  There is a world out there that is living life as it should be without bosses, cars, chocolate éclairs, computers, diaries, insurance, money, newspapers, supermarkets, pensions, planes, politicians, sunscreen, tax, train timetables, TV or the web. 

Breathe the air, relax and just be.

Axel’s Universe And Some Silly Thoughts About Time

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Even though I never wear a watch, I am surrounded by time everywhere.  I have, also, always been fascinated by the idea of time – What exactly is time? What does time mean? Why does it go forwards as a natural progression and not backwards or sideways?

I love the story of John Harrison, who in the 1730s and 1740s invented two perfect precision instruments for keeping time, which (and this is the weird part) were needed to solve the issue of longitude or the position of objects on earth around its axis rather than from North to South.  Then there is Alfred Einstein who reinterpreted the way we need to think of the world and the universe as being a matrix of space-time rather than just space on its own, and that objects with mass morph the geometry of space-time, so creating forces that we sense as gravity, hence we must always consider everyone’s personal timeframe when making scientific observations.  Also, I used to puzzle over a stopped clock in the quad at Cotton House of Rugby School and wondered then (as I still do now) whether a stopped clock is more correct than one that is slightly incorrect in time, i.e. is a clock that is correct fleetingly twice in every 24 hours more accurate than one that is never correct but is always just out? The standard answer is the almost correct clock as it is correct ± a bit, but I think it is probably more important to be right twice in every 24 hours than never accurate.  Finally, I have never forgotten an answer by British Rail (or maybe it was the London Underground, so I ironically did forget some of it!) to the question of why British Rail minutes varied in length, being that British Rail minutes were not about standard time minutes but were estimates related to distance.  Then we measure the distance to stars in light years and not kilometres nor in time, so we are continuously mixing and matching time with distance.

For me, time is real quandary, a hidden framework that shapes our reality, which even now we do not fully understand.  I think it may be the key to reality and how we should conceptualise everything in the universe.  However, we are obsessed by hours, minutes and seconds as a way of diarising meetings and phone calls, rather than seeking to understand time as part of the matrix; time has shape and how we observe reality is modified by time.

We feel and experience time only as one fleeting dimension – the present – however the past is behind us and the future before us, even if as human beings we cannot comprehend these times as dimensions as they do not fit within our sensory model of reality.  We see light, hear sound waves and feel physical objects and energy like heat and the wind, but as for time we do not sense it except as part of the ageing process.  In fact, when we feel something or hear someone talk to us or taste a perfect chicken tikka masala or watch Usain Bolt run the 100 metres, we are sensing a past act, and so at the point of physical sensation, you had actually already touched that object or your friend had finished speaking or that molecule of spice flavour had moved away from your taste receptor and Usain Bolt had finished that muscle movement.  What we call the present is actually history by the time we sense it, however here on earth the impact of that petit morceau of time that we are out by is so miniscule as to be irrelevant; however, you can sense this weirdness by switching on a live football match on Radio 5 Live and then having the match simultaneously on the television in another room, so during the 2010 World Cup I could hear a goal being scored on the digital radio in the kitchen then charge into the TV room and watch the goal about to happen.  I accept the science behind that timing difference is different from what I have been talking about, but I use it to illustrate the weirdness of time as a concept.  Or to use a spatial analogy, I remember once getting a new pair of glasses and walking out of the optician and falling straight off the kerb like a drunk; the glasses had minutely changed my spatial model of reality and the road and the kerb had moved a small bit, yet my body had not had time physically to adjust to this change and the road was not quite where it used to be, so I was made to look the fool; however, the brain is an amazing thing and likes to reassert its model of reality, so within 20 minutes everything was back as it should be and I could walk up steps and jump off chairs without a care in the world. 

However, now look into the night sky, you are looking at the history of the universe, so we are sitting (or standing) in the present, looking at the past and are in the future for those bits of reality sitting in the past.  Doesn’t that mean that there is past, present and future co-existing simultaneously? As many have thought of the universe, so I sometimes imagine time as a sphere, where we sit as a dot on its surface – if you curve around that sphere on a horizontal line, then you have all the present realities, then if you go vertically upwards you move into future time or downwards into the past; however, this model of curved time suggests that future and past are simply directional and that they will meet and travel over each other back to our current position.  Is this a flaw or is that what actually happens?  And how many time dimensions are there – present and/or past and/or future? This is what you must conceptualise when you look into the night sky in the present looking at the past from the past’s future; in the end, we are not wired to visualise this, so it is well nigh impossible to comprehend as we go about our daily lives.  I accept that this view of the universe is not considered credible by current physicists, but maybe it is crazy enough to be possible?  And while it is basically irrelevant to worry about time as a dimension on earth as we live out our lives, it is crucial to an understanding of the universe and stuff that happens in these bigger time frames, so when you think about the distance to the Milky Way’s neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, as being 2.5 million light years away and spinning at 225 km s-1 at its centre, your timeframe becomes very important as when we see some light it is hugely old already and the positional shape of Andromeda now is completely different by 2.5 million years and the speed of 225 km s-1; a day is a long time in politics and 2.5 million years is much, much longer!  This really is the idea behind Einstein’s thinking on relativity, being you need to consider time when you make observations, collect measurements and then formulate hypotheses about data, or when you make predictions, errors will arise because you have not adjusted for the impact of time, and going back to the previous paragraph, time is personal to whoever (or whatever) is making those observations and their answer will be different from that of another observer.  On earth, while making normal earth-based measurements, the differences have no impact, but at the miniscule scale of particle physics or the mammoth scale of stars and galaxies, time is so totally critical to getting a correct result.

In fact, we are a bit like the character in the Somerset Maughan story (if someone can tell me which story it is that will help as I have forgotten) who during World War 2 receives his newspapers to his remote Malaysian rubber plantation as bundles in the mail once a month, yet rather than go to the most recent date and read backwards, he stoically reads his newspapers in order but out of time and date.  So the information he gleans from the newspapers is old and the politics of the world and progression of World War 2 has evolved by the time he gets his news, so how should he construct his socio-political model of the world.  In fact, without current information can he construct a valid model for the world?  The answer is no, but because he lives remotely without any other observer to dissuade him of his way of modelling his life, he can continue unchanged even to the point of dressing formally for dinner to eat on his own a British meal.  How destructive instant communication is to those obdurate models of how to live and how frightened regimes like those in Burma and North Korea must be of information that can show citizens an alternative model for living?

So when you observe something a great distance away the actual time of that initial event must be considered, so time starts to impact your results and data, i.e. the light that you measure from Proxima Centauri is 4.2 years old or 3.97 x 1013 km away (39,700,000,000,000 km).  Now that would be fine if everything were static and nothing moved or changed, but the universe is supposedly expanding, earth is spinning on its axis and around the sun and our solar system is spinning around the galactic centre of the Milky Way completing a full turn every 225 – 250 million years, which in turn is moving through the universe towards the Great Attractor; in fact, it means that the Milky Way is moving at 600 km s-1 and so on earth we are moving at 51.8 million kilometres every day, which is not bad exercise for those of us, who just sit all day at a computer screen.  So you cannot just ignore time, or the shape of time; but I still remain unsure as to what time really is all about.

Going back to British Rail’s idea of time, time is not really about standard “diary” time, but is perhaps about relative time between observers and observation points, while absolute time relates to the period of time from the start of the universe, i.e. big bang to the edge of reality, and continues to progress as more time is created every moment and so absolute time moves out from the creation point endlessly.  However, at some point, the universe might collapse back in on itself, so would time then move the other direction and regress or at least progress in the opposite direction and would it then flow backwards (or become the new forwards)? I doubt this would mean that reality would wind itself backwards like an old movie reel, but rather the direction of time’s flow would be switched around.  Reality is fractal, so any change in direction would simply create a new fractal reality, rather than everyone walking backwards and growing young again, however amusing that might be.  Does this mean, however, that time is not absolute but totally relative and will go faster or slower, depending on the speed of expansion of a particular part of the universe, and did it grow more quickly at the start of the universe then become constant and perhaps will one day slow down to zero then switch directions?  In fact, as you reach a black hole, you would appear to slow down in terms of time from the point of view of an external observer on earth until you became frozen in time even though (from your perspective) time continues at its normal pace, i.e. relative time is different for you and your observer.

As an aside, the speed of light, c,  is used to fix time and so is the crucial constant, acting as the upper limit for energy, but why is it fixed at 299,792,458 m s-1, i.e. it is fixed but why is not quicker or slower?  Perhaps, it is fixed by the speed of expansion of the universe at its initial burst from big bang or the current rate of expansion of the universe, i.e. light cannot go quicker than time itself is made and the upper limit is set by the rate of expansion of universe.  However, as speed is a function of distance and time, if the rate of creation of time changes then for c to remain constant the distance travelled must also change to ensure that the distance travelled per unit of time remains unchanged, so would the speed of light appear from an external observer’s perspective to fluctuate?

But this is all just conjecture and frivolous play rather than science, you say.  I agree, but then I do not have a budget or the skill to use the Large Hadron Collider, so I shall live in my imaginary universe; it is far cheaper and involves venison casserole followed by chocolate rice pudding later, made by my own hands.

Let me go back to the idea of time; it niggles at my brain like the dog that did not bark in Sherlock Holmes’ “The Silver Blaze”.  What if scientists are wrong about time? What if there is more than one dimension to time? What if time is not about standard time but is really a function of the flexibility or at least rate of expansion of the universe, or our reality model?  How must we think about time when constructing a model for the universe?  Did Einstein get it all correct or are we really still building our models of the universe like one of those beautiful brass mechanical models that showed the solar system using Ptolomaic model?

So what is the shape of time.  The general shape of time is perhaps what is being measured by the double slit experiment, which is one of the most elegant experiments of all time.  And while it was originally done by Thomas Young in 1803 with light and later brought into the quantum age by Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer in 1927 with an electron beam, it remains one of the most puzzling experiments of all time and opened up the Alice-like world of quantum mechanics.  These types of experiment allow light, or a slow moving electron beam or indeed any small particle under the right conditions, to pass through a slit in a barrier and then an observation screen is placed a distance away where you can observe the patterns created by the light, or electron beam, as it impacts the screen.  When there is only a single slit open, it merely impacts the screen with greater intensity at the centre and then fades as you move away from the centre.  Now if you place two slits between the light or electron beam source and observe the pattern produced, you get a pattern of light and dark or higher and lower intensity.  Finally, if you fire individual electrons or photons at the screen rather than a continuous stream, you still get this pattern of light & dark/higher & lower intensity.  This is explained by the concept that light is a wave and that you are seeing the classic interference pattern of two waves as they meet and become more intense where they are in phase and less intense and cancel each other out where they are out of phase.  But what of the individual electron/photon and why does an individual particle act as a complete wave as if it were a constant stream of particles or a wave?

While most scientists explain the experiment by stating that photons, electrons etc act as a wave under quantum mechanics and even a bucky ball of carbon can under the right conditions act as a wave, for me the experiment provides a glimpse of the shape of time.  The future is a wave, which seems sensible as all things are possible in the future.  Hence, to return to my piece of string from my previous blog, you can imagine all things being all probabilities on that piece of string from 0 through to 1 and then this rolls forward forever into the future creating the shape of a wave.  However, this does not answer everything, for example why don’t all things behave in a quantum manner?

When I like Archimedes lie in the bath, I can look at the taps; if I close my eyes and then reopen them, they are still there, then if I close them for longer the taps are still there unchanged; if I close my eyes really tightly shut, then quickly reopen them, the taps are still there.  If I get out of the bath, get dressed, go for a walk and then come back, the taps look and feel the same.  Nor can I speed the taps up to such a great speed that they become like waves and become quantum objects. But why not?  If quantum mechanics is to unify everything, then it should be able to answer that question as well as predict the existence of baryons, mesons and the colours of quarks, all stuff from an imaginary Alice in Wonderland world of complex maths and strange realities.  Does everything need to be blasted at energies equivalent to 7 teraelectronvolts per proton to become real?

So why do objects persist and for that matter why don’t monkeys write Shakespeare and why don’t atoms zap off from my bath taps and zoom around the universe, but they stay put inside my tap or in my delicious cooking apples?  The physicists answer would be that they might do all these things, but it is down to probabilities and you need to consider every possible position for those quarks, neutrinos, electrons and atoms in the universe, draw some Feynman diagrams and you will come up with the most probable position for those atoms, which hopefully are in and around my taps and apples rather than in the Small Magellanic Cloud.  Now for me, that sounds like a lot of hard work, a bit elitist, as well as a slight cop out, i.e. we don’t know, but it’s a really hard sum that you would never, ever be able to understand!

I feel that something is missing in this analysis.  It has perplexed me for ages, but I think one of the keys is how we view time.  Objects like my tap and my apples have form, a history; they have a past and this impacts the future of those objects.  So in the future the tap will still be a tap and the apple will remain an apple until I eat it and then it will be chewed and broken down into useful molecules for my body to process, or be excreted and then go through the cycle of life again.  Time is more than just the future.  I call this latency, or maybe it should simply be called the past.

So time has more than just the one dimension of forwards/ the future/ progression, and there is a trace at least of the past.  I think it is more than a trace and that time has at least three dimensions of past, present and future, but (and this is key) time is not about standard time – that is a misnomer even if it is how we measure it.  Time is a measure of something else in the universe, rather than the answer itself, a symptom and not the illness.  The past acts like a drogue on the future, determining what happens in the present, so you must modify your understanding of reality to take into accounts these three dimensions of time.

Let me go back to time and how to conceive of it.  Imagine the universe is a balloon and you blow air into it.  As it expands, it stretches.  Now there is physical shape to it and it is expanding just like the universe.  Also, different points expand at different rates, so those further away expand more quickly and appear to be accelerating just like the universe.  That is a pretty standard way of thinking about the universe.  But there is something else happening – as you blow air into the balloon it stretches outwards and there is pressure that forces the balloon to expand outwards, but there is also resistance in the balloon that is trying to pull the rubber back in on itself bringing it to its starting position as an un-inflated piece of rubber.  Now tie an end onto the balloon and get a marker pen – draw a dot on it, that is us and then draw a line around the circumference horizontally.  That line is the present.  Draw a line upwards, that is the future and downwards for the past.  These appear to be directions, but that is not what I am thinking about; think of the forces that are acting – on the present line everything is experiencing an equal force, but there is a forwards force from the pressure of the air that is trying to push us upwards, while there is a downwards force that wants us to return to our starting position.  So it is with time – as the universe expands, it forces us forwards, but we also have a force that is pulling us backwards, yet while the universe grows that expansion force is the stronger, but the regressive force is still there and it determines what happens to us in the future.  Time is like these forces, i.e. a result of the air blown into the balloon rather than the energy source from the air actually being blown in, and so like British Rail it is really about distance from the start rather than a concept of seconds, minutes, hours, days and aeons.  Perhaps, that is how to conceive of dark energy – we are on the edge of a balloon shaped time bubble and the dark energy is simply the air and energy generated inside the balloon or bubble that we cannot see because we are on the outside of the shape itself?

In fact, taking a step back, the Ptomalaic view of the universe is perhaps correct as reality is a bubble of time that emanates from us, the observer, to the beginning of time and back to us.  It is like we are walking backwards into the future and looking around us to a snapshot across time, with time encircling us, with each of us at the centre of our own bubbles of reality.  Because remember what we are looking at has already been and is not how the universe looks now, so the edge of time measured at 13.7 billion years is in fact half the answer as it will have expanded at least another 13.7 billion light years by now, which is comforting to know as it would be a little bit tedious if it was now collapsing in on us and time had stopped.  In fact, time is created quicker than we observe it, so we age relative to the universe rather than stay forever young like Dorian Grey.

Returning to the double-slit experiment, the future is a wave of probabilities.  This effectively is a truism stating that until something is known and becomes fixed in time it is unknown and unknown things that are fractal like time can be anything.  However, when an event is observed, it becomes fixed in time and cannot change.  Similarly, the past can be seen as being a wave pattern, because the possibilities are fractal and so anything is possible.  However, I do not fully accept that model, as it is simply saying we do not know what happened in the past, so we must assume everything is possible until we can observe otherwise, but that does not mean my taps were not in my bath when I was not observing them nor does it mean that when my granny, Nora Steenberg, went for a walk on (say) 18th April 1953 things were not where they should be for her reality even though she did not observe everything around her and note down the data.  In fact, the past is different from the future as you could theoretically walk a set of data points from the present all the way back to my granny’s walk in the garden, so long as you now the starting point, but you could not walk forward from the present as the future is not yet real.  Things exist, stuff happens and all without the need for complex math.

For me, I visualise time as follows.  The future is a multidimensional wave; the further away time is in the future the bigger the waves and the greater the potential for anything to happen, so an electron could be anywhere in the universe in 100 million years while anything could happen to Proxima Centauri and any planets, exoplanets or comets around it over the next 3 billion years.  However, as something gets closer to the present and so closer to becoming fixed in time, the waves become shallower and fluctuate more, until they become a fixed point travelling in the past.  So the future is a wave, where those waves become shallower the closer you get to the present, with the past being a line of points of immovable data points.  Think of it like a piece of string stretching into the distance and attach it to a wall (although for time it would be attached to no wall and would move freely); you waggle the string until it starts to form a wave and imagine the waves are the future.  Now, get a large funnel and have the wide open end pointing towards the end attached to the wall and have some dangling onto the ground behind you, noting that it needs to be a snug fit in the long tube bit.  Start waggling again, then start moving forwards and have someone behind gently pulling the string through; the future is the wave pattern and this gets smaller with a quicker phase and the past is the line of string that just waggles a bit limply behind you on the ground.

The past acts as a break and pulls the future into a shape for your reality, so my taps do not suffer from randomly zooming off atoms and monkeys do not write Shakespearean sonnets or King Lear.  The future takes it shape from the past and while anything is possible in the distant future what happens in the near future is largely determined by the cards dealt it by the past.

But why does the past act on the future?  And why does the future have more of an impact on electrons than taps and apples? Perhaps it is a result of how the shape of space-time is affected by matter?

Perhaps we could rethink reality and reconstruct our model for the universe to incorporate time even more intrinsically than at present.  Think of it like this – imagine you want to create the shape of an object in 3D space, but you only have a cross-sectional slice that is 1 cell thick all the way across and of a slice that is ⅓ from the end of the shape and sliced at a 30o angle upwards; now imagine that object is an apple and you are positioned in one of the cells in the middle of the slice; would you be able to recreate the shape of the apple and explain what it was? Alternatively, consider the Mona Lisa, but imagine that you are placed somewhere within a slice that is 1 μm thick through the vertical strut of the wooden frame – could you reconstruct the shape and elemental structure of the Mona Lisa, and even if you were able to, would it be possible ever to recreate the face, piercing eyes and mesmerizing smile from your position within the structure itself?  So not only would it be unlikely that you could determine the shape of the painting, but you would never get the point of it as you would never see the painting from the outside.  It is as if you are on the comma on page 1006 of my copy of The Complete Works Of Shakespeare at the end of the line “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”[it does not end there] and trying not only to construct the physical shape of the book, but also learn all the lines and give me the meaning; I still do not understand much of what Shakespeare wrote and I can see the words, read the text, watch the play and be explained the meaning of the text through numerous critiques of his repertoire.  And we seek to explain the universe.

Now there is a tricky problem – how to see what you cannot see?  It is a bit like my apple thought experiment where you were focused on the chopping board and there were no apples on the board, but I asked you to count all the apples in the universe and everything still remains off your mental camera shot.  Tricky and perhaps when you sit in the experimental field itself it is actually impossible at times to see what is around you, since you need to have a different sense of perspective and as for a stereogram you need to be outside the picture and must squint your vision to see new pictures pop out of the 2D image, and, even then, some people just can never perceive those hidden pictures; could you ever see the hidden picture inside the pattern if you existed inside the picture itself?

That is really hard to do, but now try and reconstruct the shape from a time morphed map of these objects.  Imagine for each millimetre you move in a radius outwards from your starting point, you need to position each atom where it would be 500 years ago in time.  When you have plotted each of those positions, you must now need to look at it and work out what the shape of the original object is, plus what laws govern it and what its meaning is.  No way!

Now, let us move on to think about scale.  I always think of how reality changes when you examine that simple geography question – how long is the coastline of Great Britain?  The answer you were meant to give at school was 11,000 miles, but it really depends on the scale you are looking at it – so at the atomic scale it goes on forever while at the molecular scale it goes on for a long time, then at the human scale it is 11,073 miles, while at the universal scale it is but a mere pinprick.  It is much the same with the core fundamental theories of physics – Newton’s law of gravity works at a human scale, while Einstein’s theory of gravity works for quantum field theory.

So what if time has a much more complex structure than we think.  What if it works in reverse to how we see shape – so at small scales of shape it is effectively one dimensional and can be ignored but as you scale up it becomes like looking at a complex world of atoms and quarks.  Because when we look into the night sky we are actually looking at a slice of time relative to us and not really a physical shape.  Think about it – when we think of mass acting on us we need to consider where those objects are, however when you look into space you are seeing the universe as it has been, so to actually get how an object is acting on you, you must adjust its position to where it currently would be rather than where you can observe it now, which is actually in its past.

Maybe that is the problem – we have a spatial model for rationalising reality, so we are trying to force all our observations into that model, however we occupy a slice through time and not through space, so must adjust our observations to fit that world.  Like Newtonian mechanics, it works within its scale frame, but not at small scales and not at larger scales, while Einsteinian theories of relativity appear to work for all of these scales.  But perhaps even Einstein did not go far enough with how he visualised time impacting our space and instead we should think about how space impacts the structure of time.

Which brings me on to what is reality, or at least what is it that we are experiencing? And can we unify all theories of physics with some simple geometric ideas?  I am sure I will be knocked down here for attempting to interpret how we think of the universe, but let’s just go for it and wait for my bubble to be burst.  In effect, I am simply trying to interpret the maths that others have calculated but do not necessarily appear to understand why it works just that it does, however in trying to think it through I seem to have redefined the observable universe slightly as “time & space” rather than “space-time” (note the order of the words as that is key) and, where scaling up or down, to use time as the scale rather than a spatial scale.  I am not sure whether that is what is meant by the maths nor if this is right or wrong or changes the way the maths can be looked at, but it works in my head, and may shed some light on what might perhaps be happening.  Here goes:

  1. Firstly, when you look and observe perhaps you are not actually looking at physical shape per se.  When you look into the night sky or out at the world, you are not looking at a three dimensional spatial universe, but into time, where time emanates from the beginning of time to you as the observer, i.e. it is past time.
  2. Secondly, each person, each being and each observer (animate or inanimate) views a different set of time that is unique to that observer.
  3. Thirdly, past time is continuously being created and pushed out further as future time is converted into past time.  This constant creation of new time extends the observable universe continuously outwards, or further away in time.
  4. Fourth, the impact of time relative to space becomes stronger over longer time distances.
  5. Fifth, mass creates three-dimensional space (and vice versa, perhaps).  Three-dimensional space is relatively weak compared to time, reducing in strength the further from mass it is and collapsing in on itself without mass being present.  Hence, each point of mass has space attached to it, which impacts and works on other fields of space attached to other points of mass, and these can accumulate and build up to build larger shapes of three-dimensional space.
  6. Sixth, three-dimensional space operates like fields that are not destroyed but become weaker over longer time distances.
  7. Seventh, as time is foreshortened and/or energy is increased, the observer’s field of vision shifts to the present, and then in theory would turn around further and for massless energy shift to the future, i.e. an imaginary speed greater than the speed of light.
  8. Eighth, each time dimension has spatial dimensions attached to it depending on the levels of mass involved, so in past time there are the three dimensions that we expect, and in the present (at high energies, i.e. close to speeds of the speed of light), there are, also, perhaps three space dimensions, while in the future perhaps there are no space dimensions and no limit to the dimensions of time.
  9. Ninth, past time is linear but for the present and future these may become multi-dimensional fields, i.e. a line for the present and then wave functions expressed over greater degrees of freedom.
  10. Tenth, it is, therefore, not possible to determine the real physical shape of the universe as we can see only it as time through the lens of our three dimensional space.
  11. Finally, all mass, energy and force can be explained through geometry and time and the interaction between these multidimensional shapes and time.

Philosophically, can this explain the universe and marry up with the maths and experimental evidence?

Take the human scale, the key physical theories are Newton’s theories and Einstein’s theories of relativity.  This explanation of our time-space envisages that when we observe we are looking at time through a lens of space giving us a universe that over the small scale of solar systems is a three-dimensional shape that is impacted slightly by time, so per Newton you can largely (but not totally) ignore the time effect on the spatial force fields in our solar system.  The shape of the solar system is determined by the mass of the sun, modified by the mass of the planets, moons, asteroids and other matter including living species and atoms.  However, distant stars and planets have limited physical three-dimensional shape and so appear flat and have little spatial force effect on our solar system.  In the space beyond our solar system, three dimensional space will effectively collapse to almost nothing as the impact of mass reduces, but as waves of spatial force flow through or mass energy shoots through the apparent void space could appear to spontaneously jitter into being; if other mass is around that momentary quantum jitter, more mass might accrete to the initial piece of mass within the small momentary piece of three dimensional space, so stars, galaxies and planets can begin to form.  The impact of time is per Einstein and you need to take into account that time moves and that each observers’ timeframe is unique.  As such, while time always impacts mass and three dimensional space, it only becomes apparent and needs adjusting for over larger distances or higher energies, i.e. time is the overarching shape that creates our universes but over short timeframes, mass and space dominate as the observable frame but you need always to consider and potentially adjust for the effect of time.  This is gravity, i.e. gravity is a force deriving from the interaction between three-dimensional spatial fields, and relativity, i.e. time derives from the observer and when you have more than one observer you need to consider the relative impact of time on what each observer is seeing.  So this idea does not deny these exist per scientific theory, just that I seem to see it from a different angle, i.e. time first, space second, which is against our cultural view of the structure of reality where we see space coming first and time coming second as an adjustment per special relativity.

Other issues include how many dimensions are there and what is mass.  I will try and address these here.

The question of how many dimensions are there has been puzzling physicists for some time, partly as extra dimensions are very hard to conceive, but they are needed to help quantum field theory to explain the standard model of the physical world.  From my proposal, there are really only two sets of functions – time and space.  Time can be past, present and future, where we see the past in our daily vision of reality, but can only witness the present in rare occasions and never observe the future.  Then I propose that within each set of time, you get its own dimensional shape dependent on there being mass, as intuitively there can be no more than three dimensions in our past time but maybe more in the present.  So in the future where there is no mass, you will get no three dimensional space but also the shape of the time changes to never ending multidimensional fields of probability stretching forever and twisting and turning into every possibility, i.e. it has a new shape that differs from the past.  The present is something very unique and precious that we do not normally see in our daily lives as we are always slightly out of time, but this is what I think you are seeing when scientists get close to the speed of light and very large energies and is where the future gets pulled through into the past.  At the Large Hadron Collider, observers are looking into the present and hence witness reality coming into effect and so get some weird effects.  To see into the future, you need to go faster than the speed of light and effectively be massless energy.  So by saying that time has three distinct phases you can change the number of space dimensions to be different in each stretch of time and increase without any issue the number of dimensions that scientists are seeing and calculating, but how many there are and what they are can only be determined experimentally.

Now for some maths, although I can only hint at it as I am not a mathematician, but having thought about the universe, I suspect current maths is perhaps hinting at these thoughts and if not could be rationalised to take these thought experiments into account.  Also, it is difficult to explain in words about multidimensional shapes, however in pure maths you can show this and perhaps that is what quantum field theory really means.

For example, David Toms at Newcastle University has determined the renormalization group function for the running electric charge in quantum electrodynamics as (Toms, D (2010) Quantum gravitational contributions to quantum electrodynamics, Nature, 4  November 2010, Vol 468, p 56 – 59):

β (E, e) =   e3    –   k2(E2 + 3  Λ)e
                    12π2     32π2      2            

This equation means that while the electric charge increases as energy increases per the first term on the right hand side, but in the presence of no or a small value for gravity, Λ, the second term is negative and prevents the electric charge continuously increasing in energy and results in it falling to zero as gravity increases.

However beautiful these mathematical equations are, they still do not answer my original question of why do these forces occur or what is matter, or how did the universe begin and what are we seeing?  They beautifully describe mathematical patterns of how to predict results in quantum force fields and particle physics, but they do not bridge that gap of understanding from the complex maths to explaining to the world what is happening, so for example Newton invented his version of differential equations to explain gravity and we all understand gravity even if the math is beyond us; similarly, Einstein was able to explain a complex concept without detailed math.  Somehow, current quantum theory misses this simple idea and I worry that its sheer complexity hides the fact that something is missing, some piece of the jigsaw or at least that piece that opens up further understanding.

Now, I confess to being befuddled by the maths and I cannot give an answer as to how to unify all these forces.  But I do notice something that unites them all; all modern physics is about shapes, albeit very complex shapes.  It is about fields and symmetry, even though these include fields with infinite degrees of freedom and supersymmetry.  So I propose that you can explain all of the structure of the universe and reality through understanding how time and space are constructed around everything and how these shapes interact with each other.  If this is so, then what could the universe be like?

Imagine that the forces are simply the result of shapes and time interacting, so for example the weak nuclear force might just be the result of the three dimensional shapes caused by different particles interacting with each other just like gravity, so a weak force that weakens in strength with distance, with varying strengths between particles due to the different shape of the fields around each particle type.  Perhaps, the electrodynamic force is created by this three dimensional shape spinning around certain particles, so different directions of spin cause different charges, while a mixture of the different speeds of spin and shapes of the three dimensional space actually arcing around the particle results in different strengths of charge, shifting electrons up and down energy levels; once again the strength of the electrodynamic force falls with distance between particles as the three dimensional shape around the particles reduces with distance.  These forces are then connected to gravity via a scale change, as gravity is the result of the sum of all these individual small spaces around each individual mass creating a field of gravity that is built around the whole body of mass, so the strength of the force falls with distances.  Note the consequence of this is that if gravity can reduce the electrodynamic force then so ought the weak nuclear force, which perhaps is why the weak nuclear force is weak as were it stronger than the electrodynamic force, then there would be no electrodynamic force and so no chemistry or biology or life.   The strong force is more complex and results perhaps from the impact of time on each particle and its shape, so using my analogy from earlier of a piece of string being time – imagine two particles connected by a piece of string, then as the two particles get closer together the string becomes limp and so it weakens as the particles get closer together, but then as you pull them further apart the strength of the force gets stronger until it effectively no longer changes (until at some point it snaps releasing energy?).

So imagine the beginning of time, we might get the following pattern.  At T=-1, there is no mass so the universe has no shape.  At T=0, mass comes into being and space is created around the original body of mass. At T=1, you have one particle of mass and one unit of time, so there are no forces, as while you have space and time, there is nothing for these to interact with.  At T=2, you have two particles of mass and two units of time, so you have strong physical attraction between the two particles due to the weak nuclear force and gravity resulting from three dimensional shape, which at this stage are the same, but you have no electrodynamic force as gravity is too strong preventing space from spinning and the strong force is relatively weak as both particles of mass are close together.  At T=3, you have four particles of mass, and the weak nuclear force and gravity are still strong due to the high density of these mass particles but weakening as these points of mass become further apart, while the electrodynamic force is beginning to want to start spinning but is not yet able to.  At some point, however, after creation, you reach a point where the weak force and gravity are weak enough to enable mass to be separated and the electrodynamic force can start being formed.

Then perhaps supersymmetry and high forms of dimensions as used by mathematicians and physicists to explain what they are doing are simply time and space folding up into (semi) stable spinning shapes that can persist on their own or more usually only when interacting with each other.  So perhaps bosons, leptons and quarks are simply symmetrical foldings of time and space that are unstable unless together, so you would need to derive several unstable symmetries in the math that when you brought together would cancel out each others’ instability (accepting that I postulated earlier that forces are the interactions between time and space rather than from particles called bosons).  So what is matter?  It might simply be time and space folding up into stable symmetries, i.e. it is the symmetries and dimensions that are important in themselves rather than being a mathematical nicety (or complexity).  Then, antimatter and dark matter might be alternative symmetries that are less stable, where antimatter can be made stable in certain conditions, while dark matter might be all the unstable symmetries that come into existence but collapse into spaceless/shapeless/matterless time-space, i.e. I suppose flat, dimensionless “3 dimensional” space – the stuff that is everywhere but has no physicality.

So time is more important really than space and has a bigger impact on reality than space.  Time works over long distances while space works over shorter distances.  Space is formed by mass and becomes “shapeless” without mass, while conversely space can create mass.  Matter is caused by space and time folding into stable symmetries, either on its own or in interaction with other semi stable symmetrical shapes; dark matter is space and time that forms in unstable symmetries and so collapse in on itself into shapeless “flat” space.  Forces are caused by the interaction of space-space, space-time and time-time, taking into account shapes and spin.  There is more than one time dimension and we see time through a lens of space, and each time reality is unique to an individual observer.  We observe time not space, in fact we observe past time only (walking backwards into the future).  Evereything is possible in the future while the present is forced into being by the latency of the past. 

Finally, I can understand why maths is so key to this, as trying to explain this in words is well nigh impossible, so perhaps I need to get out some books in complex maths and get thinking, however I am not sure that current maths can quite meet the challenge and someone with more numerical ability will need to invent a way of describing reality, but it needs to be explainable to us ordinary folk.  So I leave the world of cosmology to those wiser than me, which is nearly everyone else in the world.