I have started reading Solzhenitsyn's First Circle again.
I remember quite well, sometime in 1970, strolling into the university bookshop looking for inspiration. I was quite fully occupied studying physics, but while being blasted from all sides by quantum theory, thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations and ever more abstruse and esoteric mathematics, there seemed, nevertheless, to be something missing.
What was bothering me, as I realized many years later when I came across C P Snow’s idea of Two Cultures, was that I was involved with only one half of human intellectual experience, that being Science, and only a subset of science at that. All of the Arts, literature, drama, languages, history etc were alien unknown territory.
The Greeks, Aristotle in particular, made no distinction between the arts and the sciences in their learning and studies. Anthony Gottlieb lists the subjects upon which Aristotle wrote: ethics, political theory, rhetoric, poetry, constitutional history, theology, zoology, meteorology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, scientific method, anatomy, the foundations of mathematics, language, formal logic, techniques of reasoning and fallacies, to mention only some.
It was normal practice when I was at school – and I don’t think much has changed – to choose, after ‘O’ level, whether to pursue arts or sciences to ‘A’ level and thence to university. One thereby declared oneself, at the tender age of sixteen, one side or the other of the arts/sciences divide. This is a choice that for most of us lasts forever.
Back in 1970, and literature being possibly the easiest of the arts subjects for a non-specialist to appreciate, I had come into the bookshop looking for something ‘arty’ to read. I came across a large pile of books on the floor with the notice: “Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s new book, The First Circle”. I was vaguely aware that Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident author; also, that he was a Nobel laureate. The book seemed ideal for my purpose, and so it proved to be.
Solzhenitsyn had served eight years in forced labour camps for criticizing Stalin in a letter he had written to a friend while on active service during the war. He spent part of this time in the Siberian Gulags, providing him with material for his most famous book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But he served some of his sentence in a ‘special scientific’ facility – he had studied mathematics at university – and a fictionalized version of this establishment served as the backdrop for The First Circle. The title is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Hell consisted of nine circles, each one lower and more unpleasant than the one above, but the first circle of Hell, was reserved for ‘virtuous pagans’. It was a prison, but of a superior type.
Solzhenitsyn's ‘First Circle’ was a multi-disciplinary research station within a prison in Moscow tasked with analyzing and identifying human voices on the telephone, and designing Stalin a workable telephone scrambler. The inmates were primarily scientists and engineers but also included language specialists. All of them, with the exception of the guards and other prison functionaries, were intellectuals with knowledge of the arts and literature as well as the sciences.
To me, the book was astonishing; the fact that highly intelligent and educated people could flourish and not be spiritually downtrodden in such an oppressive environment, and that the ‘two cultures’ seemed not to exist for them, was a true revelation.
I went on to read Cancer Ward, also largely autobiographical, which described Solzhenitsyn’s time in a hospital in Soviet central Asia (where he had been banished after completing his prison sentence). There, the inmates battled the twin ogres of cancer and the Soviet State. This book too was inspirational, showing that one can retain one’s dignity and humanity when life itself is at stake.
Solzhenitsyn’s early novels are life-affirming, and even though the Soviet Union is long gone, they remain as relevant now to the way we live, as when they were first published during the bleak depths of the Cold War.
Smethurst's Luck has arrived! Official publication date, 22nd August 2013.
I can’t say that I am overjoyed to hear the news that the government plans to increase the maximum age of jurors from 70 to 75. I had been looking forward to just a few more years of misery before I became too old to be called. I have a horror of doing jury service. The rationale for that horror is the responsibility such a position holds. The outcome of a jury trial can be life-changing for the defendant (and, of course, for the friends and relatives of the victim of the offence being tried). The awful responsibility on the jurors is, therefore, considerable. I for one, although I am ‘ready to serve’ if called upon, prefer not to have to shoulder such a weighty burden.
My researches into 19th century criminal cases show that in the majority of hearings tried by jury, the outcome was flawed; sometimes severely so. In Henry Hatch’s case, eleven of his original jury subsequently declared in a letter to the Queen, that had they been aware of certain evidence, they would never have convicted him. Yet they did convict him, to the disquiet of many of the newspapers that had heard exactly the same evidence that they had. In Henry's subsequent action against his solicitor for incompetence, the jury found in his favour, but awarded him only 40 shillings damages – because one of them told the rest that 40 shillings would cover Henry’s costs!
In Thomas Smethurst’s trial for murder, one of the jurymen asked to be excused, ‘because he had formed an extreme prejudice against the prisoner’. When the judge refused this, he pleaded that attending the trial would have an adverse effect on his business... The subsequent verdict of guilty caused outrage in the press - who had heard exactly the same evidence as the jurors. More than 200 letters to the newspapers and 35 editorials later, the Home Secretary reversed the conviction.
There exist a number of recent cases where jurors have been reported for a less than serious commitment to justice. I recall the case of a woman alleged to have been listening to music on an earphone hidden under her headscarf. On another occasion, a woman was late back after lunch because she had attended a sale ‘and purchased a real bargain’. The judge fined her the cost of the bargain. More recently jurors have been sent to prison for Googling the case they were trying and discussing the results with their fellow jurors.
It would be a brave person indeed who suggested in serious debate that there might be a better system for achieving justice than the jury system. But speaking for myself, I tremble at the thought of being either side of the dock in a Crown Court.
The panel on ‘Any Questions’ this week were asked their views about a man with learning difficulties whom a judge had ordered to be sterilized. There were varying opinions as to whether this was or was not a good thing in a free and democratic society. Without knowing the full details of the case it is difficult to offer a balanced judgement, although there is something that makes one a little queasy about what was presumably a judicially ordered vasectomy.
It did though start me thinking about the whole concept of the right and freedom to produce children. In this country a couple wishing to adopt a child are required to jump through hoops. Not only do they have to demonstrate their personal qualifications and suitability to be parents, they have to prove their financial security and the stability of their home life.
Not so everyone else. Any man and woman, with no pre-conditions whatsoever, other than being physically capable, can produce a child almost any time they wish. The number of people on the planet has nearly tripled in my lifetime. Given that the resources of the earth are limited, it is clear that such an expansion of the population cannot continue indefinitely.
As long ago as the end of the eighteenth century, when the estimated world population was ‘only’ one billion, the rev Thomas Malthus recognized the problem in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Some of his proposed solutions were and are socially unacceptable, and as a result ‘Malthusian’ ideas have tended to be conflated with ‘Eugenics’ and the Nazi’s ideas of breeding a so-called superior race of human beings.
The problem, however, remains. Improved hygiene, food production and the astonishing successes of modern medicine have made the problem more acute. We are all living much longer, to the extent that there is now a major shortfall in most pension funds; previous actuarial analysis never anticipated that the age expectancy would increase in the way it has.
Governments, of course, have no alternative other than to strive for economic growth at all costs. How often in the last few years have we heard government spokesmen either crowing over the latest signs of positive growth, or wheeling out excuses why growth has not occurred. Growth means the increased production of goods and services which provide increased tax revenues; more goods and services need more consumers and more consumers mean more people.
Some time back, the Chinese government recognized the problems of population growth and instituted the ‘one child per family’ policy, with some fairly brutal decision-making on the ground. Pregnant women with one child already are bullied into having abortions. Those who refuse suffer severe financial sanctions. Clearly, such a policy could only work in a totalitarian state.
We in the so-called civilized west, are constantly reminded of global warming, which most informed people are convinced is either largely or entirely man made: the result of the ever increasing demand for energy. We are also presented with forecasts of the cost of food doubling or tripling in the near future mainly because of demand. Add to that the anticipated global strife over water supplies, as population increases demand more and more, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: they all have a common root cause. Burgeoning population growth. And that is the elephant in the room.
Governments are chary of discussing the problem since a) they need the growth for economic reasons, and b) almost any solution involving compulsion rather than persuasion is likely to be totally unacceptable in a liberal democracy. It seems then that we are content to stick our collective heads in the sand, and as with the national debt, pass the problem down to our children and grandchildren. I just hope they forgive us.
Two very interesting articles in the ‘Science’ section in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph (which I generally only buy for the puzzles).
The first, ‘Why we face grave danger from space’, by Michael Hanlon, lists the various perils that we live with. These range from communication and power disruption from solar flares, the effects of ‘flying mountains’ hitting the planet – like the one 65 million years ago that was supposed to have wiped out the dinosaurs - all the way up to global annihilation as the result of the earth being showered with radiation from a nearby supernova.
Hanlon takes some comfort from the fact that there is an unbroken record of life on earth stretching back 3.5 billion years; in that time the planet has not been close enough to any supernova to have been cauterised. Nevertheless, he cites several worrying instances in recent history. There was the Tunguska event in 1908, when a meteorite of between 200 and 620 ft in diameter exploded over Siberia with an energy estimated to have been equivalent to between 3 and 30 megatons of TNT. Then there was the similar incident this year at Chelyabinsk; that blast was equivalent, fortunately, to only a ‘small nuclear weapon’, and up to a thousand people were injured.
Clearly such risks are real, although there is little point in worrying about them since there is very little that can be done. Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was predicated on the installation of a super space-probing radar system, following the deaths of millions of people on earth after a large meteorite strike.
I’m reminded of an incident when my daughter was about eight years old. She had been reading one of my astronomy books. “Daddy”, she said, “it says here that in about 5 billion years the sun will start to expand, turn into a red giant, and engulf the planets including the earth. Daddy, when was this book written?”
The second story, by Roger Highfield, concerns the expansion of the universe. I have been reading a lot about this recently, including a biography of Edwin Hubble. He was the first scientist to make a good estimation of the distance of the galaxies as well as measuring their spectra, and confirm from the red shift of those spectra, that the galaxies were moving away from us. He also found that the further away the galaxies were, the faster they were receding. Recent work suggests that the rate of expansion is accelerating, indicating that some sort of repulsive gravitational force is also at work.
Now, however, Professor Christof Metterich at Heidelberg, is suggesting that the cosmic red shift – long thought to be simply due to the Doppler effect – may, instead, be due to a long-term variation in the masses of the emitting atoms. This is fascinating stuff. Prof Metterich’s website contains downloads of PowerPoint presentations he has given on his ideas. Sadly, without a spoken commentary, I find these impossible to follow. Highfield comments that Metterich’s ideas might be as revolutionary as those of Hubble.
My interest is simply that I am fascinated by cosmology – how the universe came to be as we now see it, where it came from, and how God fits into it all. I shall follow Professor Metterich and his ideas with great interest.
Essex does not always get a good press, but today I did a talk to ‘The Rodings’ U3A. A nicer bunch of people and more charming part of the country would be difficult to find.
The Rodings (or Roothings) consist of eight villages a few miles west of Chelmsford: Abbess Roding, Aythorpe Roding, Beauchamp Roding, Berners Roding, High Roding, Leaden Roding, Margaret Roding and White Roding. The meeting took place at The Reid Rooms at Margaret Roding, as pleasant a venue as I have been to in a long time.
Since the sailing around the Essex and Suffolk coasts beats the south coast into a cocked hat, I have no hesitation declaring that “The only way is Essex...”
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs