the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Science


Bangkok, 10 August 2016

There was a time, not that long ago it seems to me, when we did not have all these electronic gizmos lying around the house. Now we suffocate in them. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two phones, one smart and one not smart at all, two tablets, one portable computer, one thingy that gives my wife her wifi (I use my phone’s hot spot), one power pack, one flat-screen TV, and one radio-cum-CD player. I’ll also throw in our two electric toothbrushes. I’m sure we are quite modest in our e-outlay. For instance, neither of us has ever had an iPod or equivalent blasting music in our ears through those tiny ear phones which are squeezed into your ears and guaranteed to make them ache after five minutes (mine certainly do). Nor have we ever had a game console with which to pulverize, mutilate, and generally annihilate the human race. Nevertheless, even with this very modest e-inventory, we suffer from a terrible problems: wires.

The biggest problem with all these e-products is that their batteries need recharging. So our living room floor is festooned with electric wires snaking this way and that, plugged into every available socket. In fact, since we don’t have that many sockets, we have to use several power strips, which add more wires to the confusion. And the worst of is that, since all these damned products seem to need recharging all the damned time, we drag a handful of wires and one or two power strips behind us when we move from the table to the couch.
I have to say, when I’m dragging my wires and their attached e-products around I feel like Marley’s ghost when he comes to frighten the bejeezus out of Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. … The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. … “It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.” His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. … The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; … The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Well, as you might imagine, I am not the only one to be irritated by this bloody nuisance of wires. Some of my readers may well feel the same wire-induced irritation. And of course the private sector, ever alert to new markets, has moved in. Companies have designed wireless chargers, which use induction coils to produce an electromagnetic field, which in turn can charge batteries. Don’t ask me anything more; I never understood electro stuff. Luckily, these new products can look pretty cool
although I do note that while there may be no wire between charger and e-product, there must be a wire between charger and wall socket – otherwise, how does it get the electricity which it so generously passes to the mobile, tablet, or what have you?

So other companies have come up with the idea of inserting the wireless charger into products which already have wires. Clever, no? For instance, take my favourite furniture shop, IKEA. “Our range of wireless chargers blend in beautifully with your home” their catalogue proclaims, “and can be placed where you need them the most. All without having to chase after outlets or hide messy cables.” Words after my heart! See, for instance, this clever lamp, which has a charger built into its base. And which has won some design award to boot.
IKEA has various other lamps as well as what I take to be bedside tables with these built-in chargers.
In case my readers suspect me of having shares in IKEA, I hastily add that there are many other furniture companies out there offering similar solutions. My crystal ball tells me that this is the future.

But then there is one thing that’s worrying me. Aren’t all these wireless chargers using the same technology as microwave ovens? Like I said, I don’t understand all this electro stuff, but it seems to me to be more or less the same. In which case, a houseful of wireless chargers will slowly be cooking us. My phone is already cooking my brain.


Marley’s ghost, by Alec Guinness:
RIGGAD lamp:
Other furniture with chargers:
Phone cooking brain:


Bangkok, 15 May 2016

My wife and I have just seen the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity”. For those of my readers who are not up on the latest offerings from Hollywood, this is a film about two real-life mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant, self-taught, Indian mathematician from Tamil Nadu, and G.H. Hardy, a great English mathematician, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. I will not bore readers with a summary of the plot or my analysis of the story. My point is, it’s a story about mathematicians who love mathematics. The film is full of allusions to the beauty of mathematics, and indeed Hardy is known to the general public (if known at all) for a book he wrote on the beauty of mathematics, A Mathematician’ Apology.

The beauty of mathematics …

Neither my wife nor I are good at maths. In fact, we stink. And as can be readily imagined, we both have bad memories of maths at school. My wife still talks with dread about her last maths teacher, Mrs. Poggi. She was, according to my wife’s recounting, old, single, small, and very, very mean. She had an uncanny ability to know when my wife didn’t understand what was going on, and with a loud voice would command her to stand up and explain.
For my part, the name of my maths nemesis is now mercifully expunged from my memory. All I remember is having been moved up two classes in primary school, and finding myself going from arithmetic to geometry. There I was, staring helplessly at a triangle while my nemesis was flaying me verbally in front of the whole class, saying it was obvious that a squared plus b squared equaled c squared.
(There was also, later, the ex-colonel, who used to fling pieces of chalk at those who, like me, failed to comprehend the mathematical complexities on the board quickly enough. His name I remember: Colonel Yule)

My wife never recovered from her run-ins with maths. Even now, she begins to get nervous whenever even simple arithmetic operations are required – although she has a much better grasp of numbers in the real world than I do; she instinctively knows what the price of anything should be, whereas I have no idea: 1 euro, 10 euros for a bag of tomatoes? don’t know. For my part, I was partially salvaged in secondary school by the kindly Fr. George (my secondary school was a religious school). Fr. George took the class of the maths duds, the maths brain-dead. His job was to get us to pass Maths O-level – minimum pass was all that was required. His method was simple: to do exercises again and again, until the fear of the mathematical operation in question had passed. (he also gave very sensible advice like write your name on the answer sheet before starting, to calm your nerves, remember to turn over the exam paper to see all the questions before you start, and don’t do the questions in order – start with the questions you know you can answer). His recipe worked for me; I passed with minimum grade. (I thought I was done with maths at that point; alas not! I wanted to do science, and maths comes with science. So I struggled on with maths all the way to first year in University).

With this baggage, it’s not surprising that neither my wife nor I see any beauty in mathematics. I suppose towards the last years of my interactions with maths I faintly saw the possibilities of beauty, when the complexities which started at the top of the blackboard would resolve themselves neatly, and indeed beautifully, by the bottom of the board, but that was as near as I ever got.

I suppose, like Moses before the Promised Land, we are told that there lies before us a land flowing with milk and honey but we know we will never enter it. That will be left to the likes of Ramanujan and Hardy to enjoy.
Well, you can’t have everything in life.

Mean Italian maths teacher:
Teacher shouting at pupil:
Moses before the Promised Land:


Kuraburi, 18 April 2016

It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.

Yellow runner school fish in Similan, Thailand

As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.

The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).

All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:

Powder blue surgeonfish
imageRainbow parrotfish
The wonderfully named Moorish idol


Lined surgeonfish
Black surgeonfish
Emperor angelfish
Melon butterfly fish


Blue lined grouper

We saw other denizens of the reefs too:

A powder-blue starfish

The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish


Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath


And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
Table coral


Mushroom coral

But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating


those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.

I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.


But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record.
But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.

One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.

Yellow runner fish:
Fusilier fish:
Powder blue surgeonfish:
Rainbow parrotfish:
Moorish idol:
Lined surgeonfish:
Black surgeonfish:
Emperor angelfish:
Melon butterfly fish:
Blue lined grouper:

Blue starfish:

Crown of thorns starfish:
Squamose giant clam:
Magnificent sea anemone:
Magnificent sea anemone:
Staghorn coral:
Table coral:
Mushroom coral:
Reef life:
Bleached coral reef:
March global temperatures:


Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, “1066 And All That”: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse


while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.


This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de-facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.


Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum


Woad plant: (in

Mel Gibson: (in

Medieval tapestry: (in

Hôtel particulier, Toulouse:’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg

Erfurt University: (in

Indigofera tinctoria: (in

Packet of natural indigo dye:

Indigo processing Carolinas: (in

Indigo processing Bengal: (in

Town gas manufacturing: (in

Coal tar: (in

Mauveine: (in

Old BASF plant: (in

Master of the Blue Jeans painting: (in

Blue spectrum:×455.jpg (in


Bangkok, 14 June 2015

Who hasn’t heard of the theory of relativity? I mean, everyone has, right? Apart maybe from some Amazonian tribes who’ve only just been discovered.

uncontacted tribe

And of course everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place


OK, this photo may suggest that Einstein was not a very serious fellow, so let’s throw in a more solemn photo of him, taken a year before he published the special theory of relativity in 1905.


(as we all undoubtedly know, this is the first of two theories of relativity; Albert published the general theory of relativity in 1916).

1905, by the way, was Einstein’s annus mirabilis. His paper on the special theory of relativity was one of four seminal papers he published that year in the highly respected Annalen der Physik; the other three were on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, and on mass-energy equivalence (you know, E=mc2, that one). He was one hell of clever guy, no doubt about it. No wonder he got the Nobel prize! Should have got two, if you ask me.

Anyhoo, the special theory of relativity, known as STR to conoscenti like me, has two very interesting predictions: the faster you go, the smaller you get and the slower time passes. So you get squeezed tighter and tighter slower and slower. And the amazing thing is, you wouldn’t notice you’re getting all squished and that your Rolex is running slower! To you everything looks completely normal. Like I said, Einstein was a pretty amazing guy.

Well, of course science fiction writers latched onto the second of these predictions – so-called time dilation to conoscenti like me – like that leach latched onto my leg many decades ago. For instance, they have imagined some poor married astronaut going off on an interstellar journey, travelling at near the speed of light for a couple of years and then coming back, also at near the speed of light, TO FIND HIS WIFE AN OLD CRONE! At his super speed, he has only aged a few years, but his wife, traveling at the Earth’s much slower pace, has aged decades. Amazing thought, no? This plot line was the basis of the original “Planet of the Apes” movie of 1968 (no doubt only old fuddy-duddies like me even remember that there was such a movie). The astronaut hero, Charlton Heston, has been on super-fast intergalactic travel and crashes onto a planet, which he discovers is run by apes.

heston and the apes

Only at the end of the movie, after many super exciting adventures, does he realize that the planet is actually Earth, hundreds of years after he had left it.

heston and statue of liberty

In the real world, it took a while for clever scientists to design experiments to test Einstein’s predictions. Time dilation was only proved for the first time in 1938, by two fellows at Harvard. To be honest, their experiment was so clever that I don’t understand it. I understand much better an experiment carried out down the road, at MIT, in 1963, which involved measuring the number of muons whizzing by at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and the amount whizzing into MIT’s campus. You see, as muons rain down from the outer layers of the atmosphere, where they are created, they decay, like uranium atoms, and clever scientists know the speed with which they decay.


So if you measure the muon whizz-by rate at the top of the mountain as well as the number of muons so whizzing, and if you know the muon decay rate as well as the difference in height between Mt. Washington and the MIT campus, then you can calculate how many muons should have decayed away before reaching said campus, and you can compare that to the actual number you measure whizzing into your lab on campus. And you would find many more arriving than you calculated! BUT, if you now went back to the blackboard


(or whiteboard in this day and age) and factored in Einstein’s time dilation effects, then the difference between what you calculated and what you measured would pretty much disappear. Because, you see, while you, the clever scientist in your MIT lab, was saying “well, it should take one millisecond for a muon to go from the height of Mt. Washington to the height of my lab”, the muon, speeding along at something near the speed of light, would glance at its Rolex and say “hang on a millisec, it only took me one microsecond to get here, so I ain’t decayed yet.” Clever, no?

Of course, all these experiments cost a lot of money. I have just discovered a much cheaper experiment proving the time dilation effect, although admittedly it takes a good deal longer to carry out. It came to me in a flash a few days ago. I saw a shop, which proudly proclaimed that it had been established in 1975. “Pah!”, I said “that’s just yesterday”. But then I thought, “Hang on. If in 1975 I had seen a shop proclaiming that it had been established in 1935, I would have said, ‘Wow, that’s a long time ago!'”. Which proves time dilation incontrovertibly: as each of us moves faster and faster through life towards the grave, time past seems to go by slower and slower. QED, as Einstein would have said in his heavy German accent.

I wonder if I can get this proof published in Nature?


Uncontacted tribe: (in

Einstein with tongue out: (in

Young Einstein: (in

Heston and the apes: (in

Heston and the statue of liberty: (in

Muons: (in

Blackboard: (in


Yangon, 7 March, 2015

We slipped our moorings at half past three in the afternoon, two hours late – the flight from Yangon to Sittwe had left very late. As we drove from the airport to the jetty, our guide told us apologetically that the tide was running out now. This, coupled with the strong current down the Kaladan River, meant we were facing a seven-hour journey up to Mrauk U – if the boat’s engine didn’t break down on the way. Accepting the inevitable, we settled down on the boat’s small focsle, as far away as possible from the engine, which was knocking hard and strong, while the boat chugged its way down the busy creek. It was a beautiful afternoon, cloudless, slightly hazy, not too hot; it was going to be a good ride.

We exited the creek into the mouth of the river, so big that at first we thought we had entered the sea. Surprised, we looked around us as the boat turned northward and started following the shore closely, skirting small fishing boats and their nets. Out to sea, some islets, or maybe headlands, lay humped on the horizon, while to our left extended a grassy plain

01-sittwe-mrauk u 008

on which stood a few small lean-to’s for the fishermen and some fishing boats, sitting upright, waiting to be dragged down to the shore.

01-sittwe-mrauk u 003

We waited for something more riverlike to appear. And gradually, without us noticing it, a low bank crept up on our right, far away in the distance. And so we realized that we had finally entered the Kaladan River. But such a wide river! The far bank kept following us, but always at a respectful distance.

The boat continued crawling up the shore, no doubt to keep out of the strong currents. A flock of birds, sand martins perhaps, dived and swooped close to the water’s surface, flashing from brown to white and back to brown as they rolled and wheeled in tight formation, before settling on the mud of the river bank. Another flock of birds flapped quietly over us in formation, homing in on some faraway destination.

01-sittwe-mrauk u-flav 017

Now and then, a boat would pass us or we would pass one

01-sittwe-mrauk u-flav 020

otherwise we had the river in all its wideness to ourselves. The same flat deserted plain kept us company to our left, but by now the grass had narrowed to a strip of emerald green along the shoreline, backed by a vast expanse of dry paddy fields, dotted with rice-hay ricks.

04-mrauk u-sittwe 013

The flatness was broken now and again by a tall tree standing guard over the landscape.

01-sittwe-mrauk u 012

For a brief moment – but only a very brief moment – I imagined ourselves to be chugging along some river in the Netherlands, scanning the flat Dutch farmland. But then a range of small hills hove into sight, with two of them topped by gold-covered stupas and the image of Holland faded.


As we approached, the sun began to set, slowly at first and then ever quicker, reddening the stupas’ gold to copper.

04-mrauk u-sittwe 003

At last, the sun sank below the horizon, leaving us in the moon’s company. She had been waiting quietly for her moment. She was waxing crescent, having reached her dark point a week before. Although only a small sliver was shining down on us, we could make out the ghostly outline of the rest of her lying in that sliver, “the new moone wi’ the auld moone in her arme” as the Scottish ballad puts it.


We sat there, enjoying her company, but she was already a spent force when she became visible to us. She stayed with us for just an hour before she too sank below the horizon.

Venus, the star of the evening, had been keeping the moon company, along with some of the brighter stars, but now, with the extinction of the last bright light in the sky, the full panoply of stars was able to appear in all its glory. Such a spectacle! The sky’s dome was studded with stars, some bright, some dim, some big, some small, some quarters of the sky were dense with stars, others were pools of darkness. And arcing across the sky from end to end was the Milky Way


created by the drops of milk, so the Ancient Greeks averred, that sprayed from the breast of the Goddess Hera when she snatched it away from baby Hercules’s mouth, who was suckling her while she slept, put there surreptitiously by Zeus.

milky way tintoretto

We sat entranced. How rarely we see the stars now! The strong lights of our modern life block out all but the brightest stars. Neither my wife nor I know our constellations at all well, but we could make out the three stars in Orion’s Belt


part of a much larger set of stars denoting Orion fighting the heavenly bull in the constellation Taurus

OrionLower on the horizon, we could make out the Great Plough, or Great Wagon (Carro Maggiore) to my Italian wife (and Big Dipper to my American friends).


As we pointed and guessed, the Milky Way wheeled this way and that above our heads: the boat was turning strongly now as the river began to meander.

As the river meandered, so did our talk. We talked about the Big Bang, which scientists say occurred some 14 billion years ago. They tell us a fascinating story about what happened afterwards. After a mere microsecond, the first protons and neutrons were being formed. A few minutes later, they began to coalesce into nuclei. Four hundred thousand years later, these combined with electrons to create the first hydrogen atoms. But it was only 150 million years later that the first stars began to form. And it was only 10 billion years later that the process of life creation began on this Earth, eventually leading to my wife and I sitting on the focsle of this boat, gazing at these stars. Scientists tell us that these stars are still rushing away from each other as the Universe continues to expand. What will happen next? Will we see the Big Crunch, where the Universe’s expansion will finally come juddering to a halt and then everything will hurtle back together again? It seems not; current observations suggest that the Universe’s expansion will continue or even accelerate. So will we see the Big Rip, where the Universe expands faster and faster, finally ripping galaxies, stars, and even atoms apart? Or will we see the Big Freeze, where expansion continues more moderately but existing stars burn out, no new ones are created, and the Universe goes dark and very cold? Or something else?

Nearer at home, we talked of our star, the sun. Scientists have a story for its future too. Over the next five billion years or so, they tell us, after it has burned all its hydrogen, our sun will grow into a Red Giant, making the Earth so hot in the process as to become uninhabitable. Then it will suffer a helium flash and collapse inward on itself. After it has stabilized, it will start to consume its helium for several billion years more before starting to expand again. But this time, the expansion will be unstable. At some point, it will shed its outer envelope as a planetary nebula while the core will collapse brutally to become a White Dwarf. It will survive as a White Dwarf for several trillion years before becoming a Black Dwarf. And so, sitting on that little focsle, with our backs against the cabin wall and our eyes on the sky, we followed in the footsteps of our distant ancestors, who for hundreds of thousands of years had gazed up at the stars and weaved beautiful stories to explain them.

Back on Earth, at river level, all was now inky black. No light shone from the shore. From time to time, we would see blinking red lights from fishing boats working the night shift. Once, a strong torch sprang to life ahead of us sweeping the waters, and suddenly a sea-going fishing boat loomed out of the darkness beside us. I dozed on and off, while my wife kept a look-out on the focsle, staring at the stars. At last, a faint glare of light ahead signaled Mrauk U. The wide, wide river had narrowed to a creek, trees were reaching out to us from either bank. The captain throttled the motor and the boat nosed into the jetty, where we could make out the car waiting to take us to our hotel.


Pagodas: (in

Old moon in new moon’s arms: (in (in

Tintoretto’s Milky Way: (in

Orion: (in

Mythical Orion: (in

all other photos: ours


2 November 2013

revised 14 December 2014

So Europe has been abuzz with the story of a little girl – Maria is her name – with the blondest of blonde hair and the bluest of blue eyes, who was found living with a Roma family in Greece. Her sweet little face flashed across all our television screens.

Little-girl-found-in-a-Roma camp

Greek police suspected, based on the lack of physical similarities between her and her supposed parents, that she was not their child.

marias greek so-called parents

Of course, there was a racist element in the whole discussion: how on earth could Romani have blonde children? Everybody knows that Romani are dark and swarthy (and shifty and unreliable and of thievish disposition and, and, and …). The obvious corollary was that the Romani had stolen Maria from a “normal” family. There was a certain level of triumphalism when science came along with DNA tests which proved without a shadow of doubt that the Romani who claimed to be her parents were in fact not her parents. So I had to laugh when DNA tests went on to show that actually Maria is a Roma – but from another Roma family in Bulgaria. And her Bulgarian parents look just as dark and swarthy as the Greek “parents”!

marias bulgarian real parents-2

And to top it all, as the picture shows, they have other equally blonde children!

It seems that the solution of the mystery is simple enough. All this testing has shown that Maria’s father carries the gene for albinism. So Maria and her other white-skinned, blonde-haired children are albinos.

Actually, when we get away from all the fuss and bother of these last few days along with the borderline racism of it all, there is the deeper, fascinating tale of the Roma people themselves. For some 200 years already, scholars have inferred from the Romani’s language that their original home must have been the Indian subcontinent and more specifically somewhere in its northwestern part (I won’t bore you – or myself – with the details, but it has to do with the fact that the Romani language is clearly a New Indo-Aryan language rather than a Middle Indo-Aryan language, with the closest affinities to the Saraiki linguistic group, which is native to southern Punjab, northern Sindh, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkha and northeastern Balochistan provinces of Pakistan). So how come little Maria ended up in Bulgaria?

To answer that question, it would be nice if the Romani had written histories and other documents which would tell us what happened to them after they had left their original home and, after much wandering, ended up in Europe. But like most marginalized peoples, the Romani have little if any written documents. And so we are left with mentions of their passage – mostly disapproving if not downright hostile – in the documents of the countries they crossed, along with the Romani’s own myths and folklore about their past.

And now we also have genetics.

Modern genetics is amazing. Truly, we carry our history in our cells. Scientists can carefully tease out from those millions of chemicals spiraling in our DNAs our story as peoples. As the biotechnology tools and equipment have grown more powerful – and cheaper – more and more historical information about us is being squeezed from our cells. The Romani are no exception. I have just finished reading a scientific article about a large genetic study recently undertaken on the Romani – the latest of a series. It was pretty hard going, I have to tell you. Here is a sample: “we applied the ADMIXTURE clustering method to estimate the membership of each individual to a range of k hypothetical ancestral populations (k = 2 to k = 15, see Figures 2C, S1D, and S1E). At k = 2, a longitudinal gradient on the amount of ancestry of each component is observed from India to Europe (Spearman’s rho = 0.935, p < 10216, after exclusion of European Romani; Figure S1F)”. Aie-aie-aie! But I ploughed through the articles, and this is what I got from it (with some help from a review of the article in Scientific American, I will admit).

We can start with this prettily coloured map.

india map

It shows the strength of affinity between the Romani’s genetic makeup and that of the modern populations of the Indian subcontinent (red, the strongest affinity; blue, the weakest). It tells us that most probably the Romani’s homeland was somewhere in the valley of the Indus River. This fits nicely with the linguistic evidence I mentioned earlier.

I throw in a picture here of one of the modern inhabitants of this part of India, a Punjabi farmer

punjabi farmer

Many of them are now Sikhs, but take away the turban and other Sikh attributes I don’t suppose the first Romani looked very different from this distinguished gentleman.

Genetics also tell us that it was very probably one group of people who left (rather than a number of groups leaving at different times and mingling over the centuries of their wanderings), and that they left in about 500 AD. Genetics can’t tell us why they left, alas, but a look at India’s history books shows that this was the time when the White Huns conquered the northwestern part of India from the Gupta Empire. Perhaps the Romani’s ancestors wanted to get out of the way of the fighting, or they were on the losing side of the fight and had had their lands taken from them.

Quite soon after leaving, genetics goes on to tell us, this so-called “founder group” went through what geneticists euphemistically call a bottleneck, which is another way of saying that the group’s numbers dropped sharply, in this case by half. Perhaps the White Huns caught up with them, perhaps a local population objected to their presence on their territories, perhaps they were decimated by some infectious disease. We’ll probably never know. In any case, genetics tells us that thereafter they moved quite fast through the Caucasus and the Middle East, mixing only moderately with the local populations along the way.

In about 800 AD, they ended up in Bulgaria; genetics tells us that this was their trampoline into Europe. And there they stayed for some three hundred years, according to the genetics, until about 1100 AD, when they started dispersing throughout the rest of Europe. The genetics can tease out two main dispersal streams, one to Western Europe and the other to Eastern Europe. Something bad happened to the Western European group in about 1200-1300 AD; their genes went through another strong “bottleneck”, equivalent to their losing some 30% of their population. Could it have been the Black Death? But why didn’t the Eastern European Group suffer similarly? The plague struck there too (except in the area of what is now mostly Poland). Again, we’ll probably never know.

Be that as it may, the genes also give us an indication of how much the Romani people have mixed their genes with other people’s as they spread through Europe. Overall, the Romani haven’t mixed much; their genes show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than is the case with the other European populations (an interesting exception are the Welsh Romani, who seem to have mixed quite a bit). But they haven’t kept completely to themselves. And here there is an interesting difference between various groups of Romani. For instance, Romani from Spain and Portugal, but also from Lithuania, seem to have mixed more readily with the local populations in the past than they have recently. The opposite pattern is seen in the genes of the Romani populations from Slovakia and Hungary in Central Europe, and Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, in the Balkans. Here, the Romani kept to themselves for a long time but then more recently have mixed with other populations.

Given our generalized suspicion of Romani and our desire to keep away from them (I remember as a child being told that gypsies would carry you off if you weren’t careful, that you had to keep away from gypsy encampments, etc. etc.), how did any mixing between Roma and non-Roma take place at all? Well, it could have been kidnapping, as was the initial suspicion in the case of Maria. But it could just as well have been a case of Romani women being raped. But more likely it was people who, out of desperation, running away from dire poverty or abuse or some other misery, or out of a love for the open road, joined groups of Romani. And so mixed their genes with those of the Romani.

The urge, or need, to take to the open road is not a monopoly of the Romani. Many local European populations have done so over the ages. In my country, we have the English Travellers, the Highland Travellers, the Welsh Travellers. The Irish have their Travellers.


The Norwegians have theirs. The Dutch have their Woonwagenbewoners (“caravan residents”). The Germans have their Landfahrer (“country drivers”). Germany and Switzerland (but also parts of France and Austria) have had the Jenische.


The Spaniards have their mercheros. And of course there are Show Travellers, all those people who travel around working in circuses, fairgrounds and the like.


And then we have those who don’t belong to any particular community, who are out on the roads alone, the tramps, who were turned into philosophers by Samuel Beckett in his immortal play Waiting for Godot


Many of these groups formed through poverty and desperation. But fascinatingly enough, the urge to make for the highway hasn’t died down, even in our rich, modern societies. We now have New Age Travellers, who travel between musical festivals and similar happenings.


This last photo, with the policeman standing guard, says everything about the relationship us settled people have with the travellers. We view them with suspicion, bordering on fear. These people are shifting, rootless, not only physically but morally. They are dangerous. It was ever so, the relationship between the settled farming communities and the travelling herders of the plains, the grasslands, of the wide-open spaces. Why, even the Bible has its story of this difficult, often violent, relationship between the two peoples, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the settled farmer, Abel was the wandering shepherd. Cain was jealous of Abel, who seemed to enjoy God’s favour more, and he killed him.

cain and abel

Yes, we fear them and have pushed them further and further to the fringes of our societies. But they despise us. I rather like the term Show Travellers use to describe us settled folk: Flatties. Yes, I suppose our lives are flatter for not being out on the road.

NOTE: I thank Andrew for correcting a fundamental mistake I made in the original post. I had not picked up on the fact that our little Maria is in all probability an albino.


Little blonde girl found in Roma camp:!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/185472147.jpg [in

Maria’s Greek “parents”:!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/greece-girl.jpg [in

Maria’s Bulgarian parents:!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/roma29n-2-web.jpg [in

Map of India: from the quoted article  (hyperlinked)

Punjabi farmer: [in

Irish travelers: [in

Jenische: [in

Fairground: [in

Waiting for Godot: [in

New Age travelers: [in

Cain and Abel: [in


14 August 2013

As we swelter in the heat and humidity of a Beijing August, my wife and I have noticed over the last week or so a singular natural phenomenon: the appearance of swarms of dragonflies. They are particularly thick around my piece of canal, which I suppose is not surprising since their larvae are aquatic. Neither my wife nor I have ever seen dragonfly swarms in Europe, so we are fascinated by this phenomenon. I tried taking photos with my iPhone but it was a miserable failure. My wife looked at the photos and said, “Sorry, where are the dragonflies?” The swarms are invisible. So I’ve borrowed a few photos taken by people who clearly knew how to go about it (even then, in the first one you really have to look hard to see the dragonflies).

swarm of dragonflies-4

swarm of dragonflies-1

I like dragonflies. They look so awkwardly designed, the kind of thing a kid would put together with a meccano set (does anyone under the age of 50 know what that is?): a bumbling insect, with a big head attached to a thin, thin body, the whole pushed around by those funny double wings. But let me tell you, they are survivors! They’ve been around for 300 million years or so. And the design must be pretty good, because it hasn’t changed much over those millions of years. Look at these fossil dragonflies.

dragonfly fossil-1

dragonfly fossil-2

With a bit of luck, they will still be around when we’ve disappeared off the face of the earth.

I suppose the number of species is also a good indicator of success, and here dragonflies also do pretty well: some 6,000 different species, from every continent (except the Antarctic, of course). The species we are seeing here don’t look anything special, but take a look at these photos. There are some really lovely specimens.

beautiful dragonfly-1

beautiful dragonfly-2

beautiful dragonfly-3

I can’t resist throwing in some close-ups

dragonfly closeup-2

Look at those eyes!

dragonfly closeup-1

My English grandfather, who was a scientist and an expert on high-powered microscopes, took beautiful black and white photographs of insects. I found them by chance in a shoe box in my grandmother’s house. I asked to have them. I took them to school. Somewhere along the line, I lost them – all those changes of addresses …

I’m glad to report that a Serious English Poet (whose poems were included in the magisterial Oxford Book of English Verse, no less) also liked dragonflies. Walter Savage Landor wrote this poem some time in the late 1700’s when a dragonfly landed on the page of his book:

Life (priest and poet say) is but a dream;
I wish no happier one than to be laid
Beneath a cool syringa’s scented shade,
Or wavy willow, by the running stream,
Brimful of moral, where the dragon-fly,
Wanders as careless and content as I.
Thanks for this fancy, insect king,
Of purple crest and filmy wing,
Who with indifference givest up
The water-lily’s golden cup,
To come again and overlook
What I am writing in my book.
Believe me, most who read the line
Will read with hornier eyes than thine;
And yet their souls shall live for ever,
And thine drop dead into the river!
God pardon them, O insect king,
Who fancy so unjust a thing!

Well, I can’t argue with the Poet’s point. Either all living things have souls or none do.

There’s one thing, though, in all this that worries me. It is said that dragonfly swarms prefigure earthquakes. In fact, there is a Chinese film, Aftershock, which starts in late July 1967 with swarms of dragonflies and segues into the destruction of the city of Tangshan. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake. A quarter of a million deaths. So I keep looking around me nervously, waiting for things to start shaking.


Swarm of dragonflies-1:

Swarm of dragonflies-2:

Dragonfly fossil-1:

Dragonfly fossil-2:

Beautiful dragonfly-1:

Beautiful dragonfly-2:

Beautiful dragonfly-3:

Dragonfly closeup-1:

Dragonfly closeup-2:


9 April 2013

The thing about my current position is that it requires me to get involved in a lot of issues about which I know absolutely nothing, or close to it. In a previous post I described a trip to Dali, in the province of Yunnan, where I went to discuss with the local government what could be done to increase markets for the prefecture’s walnuts. I am an ignoramus when it comes to walnuts but I can read up on the topic and learn enough to sound intelligent for half an hour’s discussion. But this afternoon, at the request of our Legal Advisor, I attended a meeting about the regulation of internet domains. This was fated to be one of those meetings where I understand the single words that people are uttering but find that when they string the words together it turns into gibberish. Luckily, someone else was leading our group, and my role was principally to fill a chair.  So I let it all wash over me and allowed my mind to wander. For some reason, the organizers of the meeting had put a slide of a galaxy on the screen. It looked something like this:


I sat there as the meeting droned on, admiring the simple, pulsating symmetry of it all. It reminded me of a book I had bought in Vienna which was filled with photos of the Universe like this one.


Look at those towering clouds of intergalactic dust. Wonderful …

But actually, the Universe seen from Earth is just as nice. I mean, on a clear, cloudless, moonless night the Milky Way is absolutely lovely

milky way-2

Even simple stars can take your breath away. I remember a night on the shores of Lake Sevan in Armenia, where we were seeing what could be done to get the economy going again and the environment back in shape after the devastations wrought upon both by the central planning of the Soviet Union. We walked down to the lakeshore one night, and the sky looked like this:


The tragedy was that we could see the sky so clearly because the economy was bankrupt – no-one could afford electricity so there was no light pollution.

Well, that was a nice, relaxing daydream. Lord knows what I’ll write to the Legal Advisor tomorrow, when I report on the meeting.




Milky way:

Desert sky: