Friday, April 06, 2007

The natural order of things

One of the most important things about the internet and BBC World Service is that together they are keeping my brain alive. At the same time this gives me an opportunity to examine the nature of the sustenance required. It’s pretty varied.

To produce 1kg of rice approximately 5000L of water are necessary. In Bangladesh, a country with a population of around 200m, rice accounts for 70% of an individual’s calorific intake. The recommended maximum is 50%. In the mid-1970s, when the World Food Programme began to supply food aid to the nation, approximately 70% of women and children there were malnourished. Today that figure is estimated to be around 50%. In part this may be due to aid, but another contributing factor is the improvement in yields from rice crops due to crossing varieties of rice. Now genetic engineering offers the possibility not only of improving yields but also of dramatically fortifying the nutritional content of this staple food. ‘Golden Rice’, with an orange yellow tint, contains beta-carotene producing DNA transferred from daffodils. Genetic engineering thus offers the possibility of rice containing vitamins and other nutrients not naturally present.

Only 1% of bacteria and viruses can be cultured and examined under laboratory conditions. This means that the remaining 99% are therefore a relative unknown. Microbiologists are working in a very murky and incomplete knowledge environment.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity produced the famous equation E=mc2. This has no practical value within normal bounds of everyday experience or orders of magnitude. Outside of these however it means that, among other things, as an object accelerates towards the speed of light its mass actually increases. In addition, if it attained the speed of light its mass would by definition be infinite. Thus the impossibility of travelling at the speed of light since the energy required to do so would be infinite too. Another prediction of the theory says that time will pass more slowly for a clock at a given altitude above earth’s surface than for an identical clock on the surface. This concept, though, is actually observed to be the case and is factored into software for devices such as GPS satellites and equipment.

When Chloroform, which overcame many of the disadvantages of Ether, first became available for general use as an anaesthetic in the mid 1800s an enormous debate was ongoing within and without the medical community as to whether it was ‘right’ to use anaesthetics at all to perform major surgery. Some practitioners adopted the new technology while others chose not to do so.

Today we might assume that a concept like the elimination of pain to facilitate life saving surgery might exist in a relatively neutral moral and ethical space. However, in general we now make a value judgement based principally on medical science and individual 'experience' that pain above a certain level of intensity is both bad and unnecessary. This in turn informs ethics and social sensibilities. We can eliminate pain and so, in the instance of open heart surgery, it is both expedient and necessary to do so.

Previously however it seems that medical science was perhaps informed more by social and religious perspectives than its own set of value judgements based on modern concepts of rationality. Society did not view pain as a simply negative experience. Perhaps God guided individuals through the infliction of pain, helping them to make decisions or influencing their lives. Pain was to be borne as it fortified the character and spirit, improving the individual and thereby providing a pay off to wider society. Pain represented punishment and by extension a lesson to others, and a deterrent. Pain was a purifier, a good thing that often preceded a cure or resolution. Pain was simply part of life and so to tamper with it might not be in our best interests as it simply formed a feature of the way the world was, the natural order.

All of which looks like a nice neat, if glib, piece hinting at issues of cultural relativism and contextualisation. The thing that occured to me subsequently however sits roughly along the following lines:

Prior to the publication of the General Theory of Relativity in 1915 the concepts of space and time were seen as existing separately but together in a fixed environment which itself was unaltered by events within it. After the General Theory it seemed that this was no longer the case. Space and time were linked together and existed in a dynamic state whereby they both exerted an effect on, and were themselves effected by, their environment the universe. This paradigmatic shift in thinking has reverberated outwards across art and science ever since and I wonder how much it can be seen to have given rise to the now much criticised concepts of post-modernism which were still dominant, though beginning to look a little tired, while I was at University. The idea that all things are relative to one another and their environment, be that physical or philiosophical, had become something of a mantra as well as being extremely useful for those wishing to subvert ingrained and dominant bodies of thought. But how much do Cultural Relativity and General Relativity really have in common?

Ah well, it keeps me amused anyway.

1 comment:

Nick Seecharan said...

feedback on your think piece - there's a typo in the 3rd from last line.

; - )