Monthly Archives: September 2016

Trump boasts of genetic superiority, German blood

I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in

All men are created equal – that’s not true. When you connect two race horses, you usually end up with a fast horse. Secretariat doesn’t produce slow horses. I have a certain gene. I’m a gene believer. Do you believe in the gene thing? I mean I do. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.

I have like a very very high aptitude


Trump shows us where his superiority is located (CNN)

Well I think I was born with a drive for success. I was born with a certain intellect. The fact is you have to be born and be blessed with something up there. God help me by giving me a certain brain. It’s this [tapping his head], it’s not my salesmanship. This – you know what that is? I have an Ivy League education [actually, he hasn’t Correction: he spent his last undergraduate year at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennslyvania, whis is Ivy League], smart guy. I have like a very very high aptitude.


You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff

I mean, like, I’m a smart person. You’re born a fighter, and I’ve seen a lot of people who want to fight but they can’t. Some people cannot genetically handle pressure.

I always said that winning is somewhat, maybe, innate. Maybe it’s just something you have; you have the winning gene. Frankly it would be wonderful if you could develop it, but I’m not so sure you can. You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff.

(What more is there to say?)

US absentee election registration made easy: tell US expat friends

trumpI don’t think this man wants you or your friends to see this: absentee voting in US election is easy now, even for expats. My own absentee ballot just arrived by email. I can return it on line as well. I needed social security number, and address of last US voter registration: details at

Spread the word

Atoms Old and New, 2: From Newton to Einstein

Part 1 of this series, “Atoms Old and New: Atoms in Antiquity” can be read here.

The transition to modern thinking

“It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles… even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God Himself made one in the first creation.” So wrote Sir Isaac Newton in his 1704 work, Opticks. Apart from the reference to God, there is nothing here that Democritus would have disagreed with. There is, however, very little that the present-day scientist would fully accept. In this and later posts, I discuss how atoms reemerged as fundamental particles, only to be exposed, in their turn, as less than fundamental.

The scientific revolution and the revival of corpuscular theory – 1543–1687

DeRevolutionibusIn 1543, on his death-bed, Nicholas Copernicus received a copy of the first edition of his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, in which he argued that the Sun, not the Earth, was thecentre of what we now call the Solar System. In 1687, Isaac Newton published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, commonly known as the “Principia”. With hindsight, we can identify the period between these events as a watershed in the way that educated people in the West thought about the world, and number the political revolutions in America and France, and the economic revolutions in agriculture and industry, among its consequences.

Before this scientific revolution, European thinking about nature still followed that of Aristotle. The Earth lay at the centre of the Universe. Objects on Earth moved according to their nature; light bodies, for instance, containe, air or fire in their makeup, and these had a natural tendency to rise. Earth was corrupt and changeable, while the heavens were perfect and immutable, and the heavenly bodies rode around the centre on spheres within spheres because the sphere was the most perfect shape. By its end, Earth was one of several planets moving round the Sun in elliptical orbits, the movements of objects were the result of forces acting on them, the laws of Nature were the same in the heavens as they were on Earth, and all objects tended to move in straight lines unless some force deflected them from this path. The Universe ran, quite literally, like clockwork. This mechanical world-view was to last in its essentials until the early 20th century, and still remains, for better or worse, what many non-scientists think of as the “scientific” viewpoint.

Galileo_manuscriptLeft: manuscript where Galileo records his observations of the motion of the moons of Jupiter, dethroning Earth from its special position as centre of celestial motion. Below right, Gallileo demonstrates the telescope to the Doge of Venice, fresco by Bertini. Click to enlarge

Bertini_fresco_of_Galileo_Galilei_and_Doge_of_VeniceIn 1611, Galileo turned the newly-invented telescope on the heavens, discovered sunspots, and moons round Jupiter, and realised that the belief in a perfect and unchanging1 celestial realm was no longer sustainable. Earlier, he had studied the motion of falling bodies. In work that he started in 1666, Newton showed how the laws of falling bodies on Earth, and the movement of heavenly bodies in a Copernican solar system, could be combined into a single theory. To use present-day language, the Moon is in free fall around the Earth, pulled towards it by the same force of gravity as a falling apple. This force gets weaker as we move away from Earth, according to the famous inverse square law, which says that if we double the distance, the force falls to a quarter of its value. Then with a certain amount of intellectual effort (involving, for example, the invention of calculus), Newton was able to work out, from the acceleration of falling bodies on Earth, and from the Earth-Moon distance, just how long it should take the Moon to go round the Earth, and came up with the right answer. He was also able to work out just how long it would take satellites at different distances to go through one complete orbit. Of course, at that time, Earth only had one satellite (the Moon), but six were known for the Sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), and his theory correctly predicted how the length of the year of these different planets would vary with their distance from the Sun (the answer is a 2/3 power law; an eight-fold increase in distance gives a fourfold increase in time). Celestial and terrestrial mechanics were united.

It was around this time that a Dutchman, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, began an extensive series of microscope studies, using single lens instruments of his own devising. Among the first to observe spermatozoa, he also described bacteria, yeast, the anatomy of the flea, and the stem structure of plants. He communicated his results to the Royal Society in London. Formally established around 1660, under the patronage of Charles II, this was and remains

Illus from Arcana after p.356

             Image from Arcana Naturae Detecta, 1695, Leeuwenhoek’s collected letters              to The Royal Society. Click to enlarge

among the most prestigeful of learned societies. Here they caught the attention of Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s Law for gases). Boyle tried to explain such properties of matter as heat, and the pressure of gases, in terms of the mechanics of small particles, or “corpuscles”, and hoped that the other aspects of matter could be explained in the same kind of way. This was, after all, simply an extension downwards of the mechanical system that Newton had so successfully extended upwards. It is instructive to consider how far this hope was fulfilled. Atoms and molecules are in some ways similar in their behavior to small objects obeying the everyday laws of mechanics, but in others they are very different, and it is these differences that must be invoked if we are to understand the forces involved in the chemical bonding.

Early modern theory – 1780-1840

Between 1780 and 1840, chemistry underwent a revolution, that transformed it into the kind of science that we would recognise today. It is no accident that this was the same period as the beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe. Materials were being mined, and iron and steel produced and worked, on a larger scale than ever before. By the end of the period, mineral fertilisers were already in large scale use to feed the growing population. Demand for machinery led to improvements in engineering, and this in turn made possible improvements in the precision of scientific instruments. Much of the new interest in chemistry grew out of mining, mineralogy, and metallurgy, while improvements in manufacture and glass-blowing led to the precision balance, and to new apparatus for handling gases.

Here I will summarise some of the most important discoveries, as seen from our present point of view, and using today’s language. This means running the risk of creating a misleading impression of smoothness and inevitability. Inevitability, perhaps yes; the world really is what it is, and once certain questions had been asked, it was inevitable that we would eventually find the right answers. Smoothness, no; the very concept of atoms, let alone bonding between atoms, remained controversial in some circles way into the 20th century. Outsiders sometimes criticise scientists for taking their theories too seriously, but more often they are reluctant to take them seriously enough.

Overall, mass is conserved; the mass of the products of a reaction is always the same as the mass of the reactants. This is because atoms are not created or destroyed in a chemical reaction.2 Single substances can be elements or compounds, and the enormous number of known compounds can be formed by assembling together the atoms of a much smaller number of different elements. We owe our distinction between elements and compounds to Lavoisier (“The banker who lost his head“). Boyle had come close a hundred years earlier, but was so taken with the transformations of matter that he rejected the notion that its fundamental constituents were immutable.3

The combustion of carbon (its reaction with oxygen) gives a gas, the same gas as is formed when limestone is heated. But there is no chemical process that gives carbon on its own, or oxygen on its own, by reaction between two other substances. So we regard carbon and oxygen as elements, whereas the gas formed by burning carbon (what we now call carbon dioxide) is a compound of these two elements. The production of this same gas, together with a solid residue, by the heating of limestone, shows that limestone is a compound containing carbon, oxygen, and some other element.4 To us, using today’s knowledge, limestone is calcium carbonate, and decomposes on heating to give carbon dioxide and lime (calcium oxide). In Lavoisier’s time, there was no way of breaking down calcium oxide into simpler substances, so he considered it to be an element.

A short philosophical digression (and every scientist has a working philosophy, whether they realise it or not): Lavoisier could make as much progress as he did because he had introduced an operational definition of an element, referring not to some inner essence but to observationally defined properties. And implicit in this was the principle of fallibilism; conclusions are always in principle revisable in the light of further observation, as the example of calcium oxide shows.

Air is a mixture, and burning means reacting with one of its components, which we call oxygen. Metals in general become heavier when they burn in air. This is because they are removing oxygen from the air, and the weight (more strictly speaking, the mass) of the compound formed is equal to that of the original metal plus the weight of oxygen. (Mass is an amount of matter; weight is the force of gravity acting on that matter. Atoms are weightless when moving freely in outer space, but not massless.)

Different elements combine with different amounts of oxygen; these relative amounts are a matter of experiment. In modern language, when some typical metals (magnesium, aluminium, titanium, none of which were known when Lavoisier was developing his system) react with oxygen, they form oxides with the formulas MgO, Al2O3, TiO2.

About one fifth of the air is oxygen, and if we burn anything in a restricted supply of air, the fire will go out when the oxygen has been used up. Nothing can burn in (or stay alive by breathing) the remaining air. Some materials, like wood and coal, appear to lose weight when they burn, but this is because they are in large measure converted to carbon dioxide and water vapour, which are gases, and we need to take the weight of these gases into account.

It was also shown during this period that the relative amounts of each element in a compound are fixed (Law of Definite Proportions). For instance, water always contains 8 grams of oxygen for each gram of hydrogen. Moreover, when the same elements form more than one different compound, there is always a simple relationship between the amounts in these different compounds (Law of Multiple Proportions). Thus hydrogen peroxide, also a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, contains 16 grams of oxygen for each gram of hydrogen. Similarly, the gas (carbon dioxide to us) formed by burning carbon in an ample supply of oxygen contains carbon and oxygen in the weight ratio 3:8, but when the supply of oxygen is restricted, another gas (carbon monoxide) is formed, in which the ratio is 3:4. Carbon monoxide is intermediate in composition between between carbon and carbon dioxide, but it is not intermediate in its properties. For a start, it is very poisonous; it sticks to the oxygen-carrying molecules in the blood even more strongly than oxygen itself, thus putting them out of action. It is formed when any carbon-containing fuel, not just carbon itself, burns in an inadequate supply of air, That is why car exhaust fumes are poisonous, and why it is so important to make sure that gas-burning appliances are properly vented. It is also one of the components of cigarette smoke, which helps explain why cigarettes cause heart disease and reduce fitness.

JdsymbolsLeft: Dalton’s table of the elements, with relative weights, based on H = 1. The correct value for oxygen is 16. Dalton’s value is based on an assumed formula HO for water, together with experimental error; likewise for other elements

All these facts can be explained if the elements are combined in molecules that are made out of atoms, the atoms of each element all have the same mass,5 and each compound has a constant composition in terms of its elements. For instance, each molecule of water contains two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen (hence the formula H2O); hydrogen peroxide is H2O2; carbon dioxide is CO2; carbon monoxide is CO; and the masses of atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon are in the ratio 1:16:12. Using these same ratios, we can also explain the relative amounts of the elements in more complicated molecules, such as those present in octane (a component of gasoline), C8H18, and sucrose (table sugar), C12H22O11. Why C8H18 and not C4H9, which would have the same atomic ratio? This can be inferred from the density of the vapour, using Avogadro’s hypothesis (see below).

Thus, by the early 19th century, chemists were in the process of developing consistent sets of relative atomic weights (sometimes known as relative molar masses). However, there was more than one way of doing this. For instance, John Dalton, the first to explain chemical reactions in terms of atoms, thought that water was HO and that the relative weight of hydrogen to oxygen was one to eight. This uncertainty even led some of the most perceptive to question whether atoms were real objects, or merely book-keeping devices to describe the rules of chemical combination.

Evidence from the behavior of gases (to around 1860)

A French chemist, Joseph Gay-Lussac, noticed that the volumes of combining gases and of their gaseous products, were in simple ratios to each other. In 1811, the Italian Count Amadeo Avogadro explained this by a daring hypothesis, that under the same conditions of temperature and pressure equal volumes of gases contain equal numbers of molecules. We now know this to be (very nearly) true, except at high pressures or low temperatures.

Avogadro’s Hypothesis, as we still call it, gives us a way of directly comparing the relative weights of different molecules, and of inferring the relative weights of different atoms. For example, if we compare the weights of a litre of oxygen and a litre of hydrogen at the same temperature and pressure, we find that the oxygen gas weighs sixteen times as much as the hydrogen. (This is not a difficult experiment. All we need to do is to pump the air out of a one litre bulb, weigh it empty, and then re-weigh it full of each of the gases of interest in turn.) But Avogadro tells us that they contain equal number of molecules. It follows that each molecule of oxygen weighs sixteen times as much as each molecule of hydrogen.

One litre of hydrogen will react with one litre of chlorine to give two litres of the gas we call hydrogen chloride. Thus, by Avogadro’s Hypothesis, one molecule of hydrogen will react with one molecule of chlorine to give two molecules of hydrogen chloride. So one molecule of hydrogen chloride contains half a molecule of hydrogen, and half a molecule of chlorine. It follows that the molecules of hydrogen and of chlorine are not fundamental entities, but are capable of being split in two. Making a distinction between atoms and molecules that is obvious to us now but caused great confusion at the time, each molecule of chlorine, must contain (at least) two separate atoms.6 By similar reasoning, since 2 litres of hydrogen react with 1 litre of oxygen to give 2 litres of steam, water must have the familiar formula H2O, and not HO as Dalton had assumed for the sake of simplicity.

Avogadro’s hypothesis was put forward in 1811, but it was not until 1860 or later that his view was generally accepted. Why were chemists so slow to accept his ideas? Probably because they could not fit it into their theories of bonding. We now recognise two main kinds of bonding that hold compounds together – ionic bonding and covalent bonding. Ionic bonding takes place between atoms of very unlike elements, such as sodium and chlorine, and was at least partly understood by the early 19th century, helped by the excellent work of Davy and Faraday in studying the effect of electric currents on dissolved or molten salts. They showed that sodium chloride contained electrically charged particles, and inferred, correctly, that the bonding in sodium chloride involved transfer of electrical charge (we would now say transfer of electrons) from one atom to another. But, as we have seen, Avogadro’s hypothesis implies that many gases, hydrogen and chlorine for instance, each contain two atoms of the same kind per molecule, which raises the question of what holds them together. These are examples of what we now call covalent bonding or electron sharing, a phenomenon not properly understood until the advent of wave mechanics in the 1920s.

Physicists, meanwhile, were developing the kinetic theory of gases, which treats a gas as a collection of molecules flying about at random, bouncing off each other and off the walls of their container. This theory explains the pressure exerted by a gas against the walls of its container in terms of the impact of the gas molecules, and explains temperature as a measure of the disorganised kinetic energy (energy of motion) of the molecules. The theory then considers that this energy is spread out in the most probable (random) way among large numbers of small colliding molecules. It can be shown that molecules of different masses but at the same temperature will then end up on average with the same kinetic energy, and it is this energy that at a fundamental level defines the scale of temperature. This is a statistical theory, where abandoning the attempt to follow any one specific molecule allows us to make predictions about the total assemblage.

The kinetic theory explains the laws (Boyle’s law, Charles’ law) describing how pressure changes with volume and temperature. Avogadro’s hypothesis can also be shown to follow from this treatment. Many other physical properties of gases, such as viscosity (which is what causes air drag) and heat capacity (the amount of heat energy needed to increase temperature), are quantitatively explained by the kinetic theory, and by around 1850 the physicists at least were fully persuaded that molecules and, by implication, atoms, were real material objects.

Structural chemistry, 1870 on

Isomerism.svgKinds of isomer. The nature of optical isomers was established by Pasteur. Simple rotamers, such as the pair shownbottom right in diagram, readily interconvert at room temperature, giving an equilibrium mixture. The other kinds shown generally do not

Chemists were on the whole harder to convince than the physicists, but were finally won over by the existence of isomers, chemical substances whose molecules contain the same number of atoms of each element, but are nonetheless different from each other, with different boiling points and chemical reactivity is. This only made sense if the atoms were joined up to each other in different ways in these different substances. So atoms were real, as were molecules, and the bonding between the atoms in a molecule controlled its properties. This is what we still think today.

Einstein and Lucretius The piece of evidence that finally convinced even the most skeptical scientists came from an unexpected direction, from botany. In 1827, a Scottish botanist called Robert Brown had been looking at some grains of pollen suspended in water under the microscope, and noticed that they were bouncing around, although there was no obvious input of energy to make them do so. This effect, which is shown by any small enough particle, is still known as Brownian motion. Brown thought that the motion arose because the pollen grains were alive, but it was later discovered that dye particles moved around in the same way. The source of the motion remained a mystery until Albert Einstein explained it in 1905. (This was the same year that he developed the theory of Special Relativity, and explained the action of light on matter in terms of photons). Any object floating in water is being hit from all sides by the water molecules. For a large object, the number of hits from different directions will average out, just as if you toss an honest coin a large number of different times the ratio of heads to tails will be very close to one. But if you toss a coin a few times only, there is a reasonable chance that heads (or tails) will predominate. and if you have a small enough particle there is a reasonable chance that it will be hit predominantly from one side rather than the other. Pollen grains are small enough to show this effect. But this is only possible if the molecules are real objects whose numbers can fluctuate; if they were just a book-keeping device for a truly continuous Universe, the effects in different directions would always exactly cancel out. And if molecules are real, then so are atoms. It is just as Lucretius said, looking at dust in the air two thousand years earlier:

So think about the particles that can be seen moving to and fro in a sunbeam, for their disordered motions are a sign of underlying invisible movements of matter.

1 In fact (see earlier post), the Arabs had already recognized the variability of the star Algol

2 We cheat. There are, of course, processes (radioactive decay, nuclear fusion) where the number of atoms of each kind is not conserved because one element is transformed into another. We simply decide to call these physical processes, so that our statement remains true by definition. Nonetheless, it is useful, because it is usually pretty obvious whether a process should be called “chemical” or “physical”, on other grounds, such as whether or not it involves the formation of new bonds between atoms.

3 The Architecture of Matter, S. Toulmin and J. Goodfield, Hutchinson, 1962

4 In present-day notation,

C + O2 = CO2 and CaCO3 = CaO + CO2

5 This is not quite true. Most elements are a mixture of atoms of slightly different mass but very similar properties. The relative atomic masses of the elements as they occur in nature are an average of the masses of these chemically identical isotopes

6 So we can write the reactions as H2 + Cl2 = 2HCl and 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O

An earlier version of some of this material appeared in my From Stars to Stalagmites, World Scientific. Leeuwenhoek material via Buffalo Library. Dalton’s table of elements and their symbols via Chemogenesis. Isomers image by Vladsinger via Wikipedia

This post originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

My fellow ex-pat Americans … easy link to register

global_temperature_anomaly-svgYes, I am a US citizen, and right now this is a responsibility that I feel I must take seriously.

One US political party, from its Presidential candiate on down, is dedicated to the denial of global warming and the headlong exploitation of fossil fuels. For me, this issue eclipses all others.

I therefore urge you: if you think that global warming is not a problem, and that fossil fuels should be exploited as fully and as quickly as possible, vote Republican.

If you think otherwse, vote Democrat.

But vote. Here’s the link. The form will take no longer to fill out than it took you to read this:

Church Appointees on Scotland’s Education Committees (as of Summer 2015)

Church Appointees on Scotland’s Education Committees (as of Summer 2015)

We give here the names, Church affiliations, and appointments procedure, of the Church Appointees on all of Scotland’s Council Education Committees, as determined by Freedom of Information requests during Summer 2015. Church of Scotland and Catholic appointees are appointed by their Church hierarchies and Councils have no chioce in the matter. Procedures vary by Council for selecting the Church allowed to nominate the third appointee.

Notes on appointment procedures:
(a) Church was sole applicant in response to advertisement (8 Councils)
(b) Position vacant, pending reply from nominating Church (2 Councils)
(c) No replies to advertisement. Sitting member agreed to continue in place (1 Council)
(d) Church invited to nominate after initially selected Church (Episcopalian) failed to do so (1 Council)
(e) No third religious representative (in case of Orkney, no religious representative at all); no reason given. (2 Councils)
(f) Two Church of Scotland representatives, in violation of the law (2 Councils)
(g) Self-nominated; Church not stated (1 Council)
(h) Appointed in 2003; religious representatives remain in place until they resign (1 Council)

(i) Representative, asked to nominate an individual from among several Churches of his denomination, nominated himself (1 Council)
(j) Representative, having lost his position as councillor in election, cited Boys Brigade experience and nominated himself (1 Council)

(k) Only religious body considered eligible by Council (1 Council)
(l) Applications invited by newspaper advertisement or similar (15 Councils)
(m) Applications invited by direct contact between Council and Churches; as far as we know, no other advertising (1 Council)
(n) Church chosen by Council to nominate on the e basis of demographics (4 Councils)
(o) Church Chosen by Council on the basis of rotation among local Churches (1 Council)
(p) Representative (or nominating Church) chosen from among applicants by a panel or group representing local religious organisations (6 Councils)
(q) Church chosen by lot from among applicants (1 Council)
(r) Church chosen directly by Council members or officials from among more than one applicant (4 Councils)
(s) 3rd representative says he can understand criticisms of system; (1 Council)

(t) The three religious representatives sit with 5 elected councillors to form the Council’s Cabinet (1 Council)
(u) Representative rejects evolution (7 Councils)
(v) Representative believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (7 Councils)
(w) Representative’s Church proclaims its belief in the eternal conscious punishment of non-believers (5 Councils)
(x) Believes in healing by laying on of hands (1 Council)
(y) Statement of specific beliefs has now been removed from Church website (1 Council)

Local Authority Church of Scotland appointment
Catholic Church appointment
Other Notes (see above)
Aberdeen Reverend Edward McKenna
November 2012 –
Mrs Irene Wischik
November 2011 –
Ms Anne Tree
Episcopal Church
August 2012 –
l, p
Aberdeenshire Dr Eleanor Anderson
May 2012 – May 2017
Mrs Mary Nelson
April 2015 – May 2017
Dr Ian Findlay
Aberdeenshire Interfaith Group
May 2012 – May 2017
Angus David Adams Bill Simpson Georgina Maille
Episcopal Church
June 2013 –
Argyll and Bute Mr William Crossan Father David Connor  [Episcopalian; nomination awaited] b, n
Clackmannanshire Reverend Sang Y Cha
The Manse
37A Claremont
FK10 2DG
Father Michael Freyne
St Bernadette’s RC Church
Baingle Brae
FK10 2SG
Pastor David Fraser
Alva Baptist Church
The Green (off Brook Street)
FK12 5JQ
n, I, u, v, w
Dumfries and Galloway Mr Robert McQuistan
June 2012 –
Reverend William McFadden
June 2012 –
Canon Robin Paisley
Episcopal Church
June 2012 –
Dundee Miss Kathleen Mands
May 2012 – 2017
Monsignor Kenneth McCaffrey
May 2012 – 2017
Mr Bashir Chohan
Dundee Central Mosque
May 2012 – 2017
c, l
East Ayrshire Ian Rennie
May 2012 – May 2017
Maria Dorrian
May 2012 – May 2017
Andrew Keachie
Salvation Army
May 2012 – May 2017
a, l
East Dunbartonshire Reverend Barbara Jarvie
May 2012 – May 2017
Reverend Paul Milarvie
May 2012 – May 2017
Mr John Jackson
Baptist Church
September 2012 – May 2017
a, l
East Lothian Mrs Marjorie Goldsmith
January 2006 –
Mr Michael McHugh
February 2011 –
Mr Stephen Bunyan
Episcopal Church
May 2003 –
East Renfrewshire Ms Mary McIntyre
2012 – May 2017
Father Thomas Boyle
2012 – May 2017
Dr Frank Angell
Jewish Community
2012 – May 2017
Edinburgh A. Craig Duncan Ted Brack The Robin Chapel Episcopalian; Rev Thos Coupar l, p, s
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Reverend Hugh Stewart
October 2014 – May 2017
Father Michael Macdonald
October 2014 – May 2017
Mr Murdo Macleod
Free Church of Scotland
May 2012 – May 2017Reverend Allan MacCroll
Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
June 2013 – May 2017
Falkirk Margaret Coutts
September 2003 –
Hector Cairns
August 2012 –
Reverend Michael Rollo
Evangelical / Pentecostal Alliance
February 2004 –
d, u, v, w
Fife Reverend Hugh D. Steele
April 2015 – May 2017
Mr George Haggarty
May 2012 – May 2017
Mr Alistair Crockett
Cupar Baptist Church
May 2012 – May 2017
l, r
Glasgow Reverend Graham Cartlidge
May 2012 – May 2017
Right Reverend Canon Robert Hill
January 2013 – May 2017
e e
Highland Mr Gordon Smith
May 2012 – May 2017
Mrs Margaret McCulloch
May 2012 – May 2017
Dr Alan Fraser
Free Church of Scotland
June 2014 – May 2016
o, u, v, w
Inverclyde Mr Tom Macdougall
September 2014 –
Father Michael McMahon
March 2006 –
Reverend Fraser Donaldson
Greenock Elim Church
September 2012 –
a, l, u, v, w
Midlothian Mr Victor H. Bourne
55 Newbattle Abbey Crescent
(pending) Mrs Margaret Harkness
Church of Scotland
2 Fowler Crescent
EH20 9RX
f, t
Moray Reverend Shuna Dicks
May 2012 – May 2017
Elizabeth Hewitt
May 2012 – May 2017
Reverend Christopher Ketley
North Ayrshire Elizabeth Higton
September 2012 – April 2017
Very Reverend Matthew Canon McManus
June 2012 – April 2017
Mark Fraser
Bridge Church
September 2012 – April 2017
a, l, u, v, x, y
North Lanarkshire Mr John Maddock Mr James Duffin Mr John Love g, j, l
Orkney  e  e  e e
Perth and Kinross Mr Pat Giles
August 2011 – May 2017
Mrs Margaret McFarlane
January 2013 – May 2017
Mrs Hilary Bridge
Scottish Episcopal Church
August 2011 – May 2017
m, r
Renfrewshire Iain Keith
May 2012 – May 2017
Reverend Father Thomas H. Boyle
May 2012 – May 2017
Reverend Graeme Clark
Paisley Action of Churches Together
May 2012 – May 2017
l, r
Scottish Borders Mr Graeme Donald
May 2012 – May 2017
Mr Joe Walsh
May 2012 – May 2017
 [Episcopalian; nomination awaited] a, b, l
Shetland Reverend Tom McIntyre
September 2011 – May 2017
 None (historic reasons?) Mr Martin Tregonning
Shetland Churches Council Trust
Ms Radina Mckay
Shetland Inter Faith Group
July 2012 – May 2017
South Ayrshire Reverend David Gemmell
April 2009 –
Phil Davey
May 2007 –
Pastor Ian Gall
February 2014 –
a, l
South Lanarkshire Reverend Sarah Ross
June 2012 –
John Mulligan
June 2015 –
Dr Nagy Iskander
Westwoodhill Evangelical Church
September 2012 –
a, l, u, v
Stirling Reverend Jennifer Millar
2013 –
Mrs Rose Hart
2012 –
Mrs Jane Morris
Episcopal Church
2012 –
West Dunbartonshire Miss Sheila Rennie
February 1998 –
Miss Ellen McBride
November 2000 –
Mrs Barbara Barnes
St Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Dumbarton
December 2004 –
a, l
West Lothian Myra MacPherson
June 2007 –
(pending) Lynne McEwen
Church of Scotland
May 2012 –
f, p

9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts

I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted

Greta_Christina_at_SkepticonInsulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.

For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.

Why am I discussing this?

I don’t often talk about the fact that I’m an atheist. That’s because it’s usually irrelevant, especially as I collaborate with diverse groups of believers and unbelievers, in my attempts to share my scientific interests, protect education from theocratic interference, and advance my humanitarian agenda. I also exercise reasonable tact in discussing emotionally laden issues. The existence or otherwise of gods is an emotionally laden issue, especially for believers, but there is no shortage of emotionally laden issues in other areas, from economic theory to football. And the idea that atheism needs special protection is, for me, anathema.

What are the questions, and what are my answers?

Ok, then, here are the questions to which Christina objects (I think it’s fair use in a review like this to just copy them), which she doesn’t want to hear again because she believes she has answered them once and for all, and, for what they’re worth, my own answers, which I promise you are a lot shorter than hers:

  1. How can you be moral without believing in God?
  2. How do you have any meaning in your life?
  3. Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
  4. Isn’t atheism just a religion?
  5. What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
  6. Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
  7. But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
  8. What if you’re wrong?
  9. Why are you atheists so angry?

1.We don’t derive our morality from God. None of us do. We derive it from social norms, and our shared humanity, and then use gods to rationalise it. How, after all, do we know that what God wants is good, unless we know what good means already? (This argument goes back at least as far as Plato, and is related to Hume’s observation that we can’t derive morals from facts alone, whatever Sam Harris may say.) One reason for the current decline of religion in the West is the clear superiority of morality based on humanity to that based on traditional religion, in attitudes towards women, gays, minorities, and dissenters.

2.No, I’m not going to give you a recipe for finding meaning. You have to find your own.

3.Russell’s Teapot. I cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a china teapot circling the Sun, but it requires a lot more faith to believe in its existence than in its nonexistence.

4.I can’t improve on Penn Jillette: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

5.I agree. The atheist and mainly atheist groups I belong to are united by such things as examining morality, improving education, and learning about current controversies. Atheism is not enough.

6.I have seen, and heard of, horrible things, and if I did believe in God, I would indeed hate him.

7.Of course I have. But as evidence, I don’t find it terribly convincing.

8.Pascal’s Wager. But what if there is a God who values integrity, who will reject those who accepted him out of hope for reward, and accept those who rejected him out of conviction?

9.I am very angry, and so should you be. I am angry about current inequalities of wealth and power; about the damage done by denial of global warming, evolution, and the usefulness of vaccines; and about the privileged access of Churches to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, where I live. But I trust I would be equally angry about these things if I were, myself, a believer. I certainly ought to be, unless my religion had corrupted my morality.

And on occasions, like this one, I am angry at those who presume to speak for me.

Saving the worst till last

But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking.

No, I do not expect people to do an online search before I condescend to talk to them about my beliefs, or the lack of them. Perhaps, after all, they want a conversation, are interested in seeing how an actual person responds, want to get to know me better, or simply want to spend time over a pint. And I detest the collective “we”; it should be obvious from the above examples that the way I field these questions is very different from the way someone else might. We are, after all, discussing questions about how we as individuals view the world, rather than questions about how the world is. So it is the height of arrogance for any of us to speak for the atheist community, as if we were compelled to march in step. Nor do I see any bigotry in someone being genuinely puzzled as to how I can differ from them over any of these questions, and I do not think they are dehumanising me by wanting to know more. The very opposite, in fact.

As for ” religious privilege embedded in the very asking,” yes indeed, but the questioner is probably completely unaware of this fact, and the best way to make them aware is to answer the questions, in good faith, on their merits.

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts. And if we grant those we disagree with the common courtesy of putting forward their own views in their own words, and the further courtesy of actually listening to them, then we, too, might learn something.

Image: Greta Christina at Skepticon 2014, Mark Schierbecker via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence 4.0

Update on Grandmother Fish, and more to come

Grandmother Fish will be released in the US on September 6, and in the UK on October 13, by Feiwell and friends. That’s a division of Macmillan, like the Nature group who now also publish Scientific American. Good company, well deserved (full review here).

And more to come  from the same author-illustrator team; Clades, an animal-matching game with rules based on the underlying science.

Your chance to get involved: Kickstarter starts October 17th. Preliminary details in the August 15th entry on the Grandmother Fish Facebook page.


Why is this game important? Because of the one sentence in the book that I would strongly disagree with: “Evolution by natural selection is very difficult to understand because it doesn’t make intuitive sense.” I think that the main reason people think it is difficult is because there is an booming cottage industry in disinformation about evolution, and that the idea of clades, relationships through common descent, will make perfect intuitive sense to children who are, after all, familiar with exactly this in their own families.


Disclosure: I made some suggestions to Jonathan about family relationships among mammals. Which are actually quite difficult to sort out unambiguously, because of rapid radiation among placentals. So if anything in the family tree turns out to be wrong, the fault may well be mine.


And much more information for the adults (and, soon enough, the children):


And finally, a useful list of common misconceptions and how to correct them – but if you want to see that (and I hope you do), then buy the book for yourself.

Or for your grandchildren.

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