cambridge university

While casually browsing my website’s logs for hits from people looking for CICCU, rocking backwards and forwards and crooning “Soon, my precious! Soon!”, I noticed that some people from Facebook had been talking about the Losing my Religion page.

Coincidentally, Varsity recently interviewed one of the admins (PDF, look on page 7) of the Cambridge University mail server, hermes. The article mentioned Facebook, so I suppose it’s where the hip kids hang out these days. The article’s a bit odd. It’s one of those “the young people always think they invented it” things: apparently, email began in 2003. That’s more than just too late, for me, but I’m pretty sure that back in 1994 there was the joy of Pine and the anxiety of using finger to see whether New Hall girls had read their email (oh good, I seem to have navigated that sentence without saying “fingering”). There was none of this webmail nonsense. Things were starkly terminal based on the frontier of the Information Prairie, the bleached bones of our text lying on the dark surface of my wildly mixed metaphor. There was a greater awareness of the fragile underpinnings of it all, a rough justice needed to preserve order in our fledgling society: I got a sternly worded email from the man who became the author of Exim, telling me to stop pissing about sending myself mail from god@heaven. And we liked it.

So, Facebook. I joined. It seems to be a gentrified version of Myspace. There’s the bit where you can leave people messages and look at the pictures of them looking pale and interesting, but the residents’ committee has clamped down on the flashing purple text on a black background and the humourous cross-site scripting attacks. I didn’t have the de rigeur photo of myself exhibiting Internet disease (warning: Encyclopedia Dramatica is rarely safe for anything, although there’s nothing specifically worthy of summary dismissal on that page at the time of writing), so I just used the one off my website. I wandered around and laughed at the community called “FUCCU”. It’s all harmless fun I suppose. I’ve e-friended some of you on there, just cos: I’m not sure of the etiquette of friending on Facebook, so friend me back if you like, but don’t do it just because I know where most of you live.

I never did find out what people were saying about the religion page, the referrals were people following links from private messages. I expect it was the CICCU people wondering when I will actually overtake their official site in Google’s rankings. Soon, my precious, soon.

Anyone up for Isolatr? It’s where the cool people aren’t.

The Fabric of the Cosmos was given to me by one of the many ex-physicists at work. I’d previously read Greene’s The Elegant Universe, and found it interesting but perhaps a bit long: I suspect that attempting to get a whole book out of explaining string theory without using mathematics might have been a bit ambitious.

The Fabric of the Cosmos is lovely to read. Greene takes a couple of questions as his theme: Are space and time a “thing”, or merely about the relationship between things? Where does our perception of an “arrow of time” come from? He begins with Newton and Leibnitz and works forward through Special Relativity, General Relativity, quantum mechanics and modern attempts to unite the latter two, introducing concepts like entropy and inflation theory along the way.

Greene has a gift of explaining technical concepts clearly. Sometimes he chooses an appropriate analogy, but more often it’s a straight explanation written with the clarity of someone who has a deep understanding of the subject themselves but still retains some idea of how hard it was to learn it. I learned some things which I’m pretty sure were new to me rather than things I knew and then forgot (for example, I don’t think anyone ever explained that a flat, Ω=1, universe can either be spatially infinite or have toroidal topology).

Personal digression into “when I was at Cambridge” nonsense: My own, somewhat limited, success as a physicist relied mostly on my ability to do really evil calculus: given some likely looking equations, I’d just dive in and emerge, gasping, with the answer. My supervisors were always writing remarks like “more words, please!” on my work (oddly enough, these days my code is pretty well commented). Nevertheless, I did OK on the Cambridge course, which was basically about testing your ability to do this stuff really fast in an exam and to think on your feet in supervisions. This was fine until the later years when they started to ask questions which tested actual understanding, and I hit my head on stuff like the Feynman path integral like Asimov hitting calculus and realised I couldn’t just do the maths anymore. I don’t really have a physicist’s intuition, but in my defence, I mostly didn’t have people like Greene as lecturers (with some notable exceptions), but rather the “101 Great Moments in Calculus” sort. They almost certainly had the deep understanding, but they weren’t so good with the the words either. I’ve no idea whether it’s still like this, and it’s probably my fault for not reading around the subject in the stupidly long vacations that Cambridge undergraduates get. Nevertheless, there should be more educators like Greene.

Greene also conveys something of the wonder and strangeness of the universe. Space is big, as someone once said, but it’s also odd. Its constituents behave in ways which are so different from everyday objects that it’s hard to believe these objects are built up of such stuff.

I was reminded again that the majority of the universe is so unlike Earth that it beggars belief that some people could believe it was all put here for our benefit (“He also made the stars”, apparently) or that an entity who could create the whole thing would be concerned with the inhabitants of an insignificant little blue-green planet.

Rant over. Green writes engagingly. I’d recommend the book to people who want to know the secrets of the universe.

Continuing my theme, there was story a little while back about a quantum computer that can do calculations without actually running. I was annoyed that nobody in the popular science press seemed to get further with an explanation than “ooh! quantum! straaange!”. Luckily Sean Carroll rides to the rescue, with an explanation involving puppies and lettuce. Great stuff.

After much prodding, LiveJournal has finally introduced tags, a way of categorising entries and of retrieving entries which have a particular tag. I’ve spent an entertaining hour going back through my old entries and tagging them. So, for example, you can see all my posts on religion or all the posts where I mention what I’ve been up to lately (I’ve nicked livredor‘s “quotidian” tag to describe my daily life). Hopefully they’ll do something similar to Flickr and allow you to search other people’s journals for particular tags, or get a feed which displays all posts with a particular tag.

Speaking of what I’ve been up to lately, I had an excellent time at S’s Graduation Dinner the other night (although the name is a misnomer as they’ve not graduated yet). It was at St John’s, who produced some of the best food I’ve had at a Cambridge college. My favourite photo is this one, as the Three Musketeers seem to be enjoying themselves.

Adam Kay and Suman Biswas, medics themselves, have joined to form Amateur Transplants, a beat combo. They are reminiscent of Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer, but with gratuitous use of the word “fuck”. You might have heard their seminal London Underground a while back, but it turns out there’s a whole album, entitled Fitness to Practice. Our favourites are Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin and Snippets, for the excellent parodies of Coldplay’s Yellow and Phil Collins’s Against All Odds. Some MP3s are here, but sadly, physical copies of the entire album seem to have sold out. They should charge to download the remaining MP3s or something: it’s for charidee.

S and I want to go on holiday somewhere scenic, not too hot during the summer (anything over the high 20s in Celsius is too hot, in my book), and not monumentally expensive. Any suggestions?

I stumbled across saltshakers on my Friends of Friends page and got into a debate about morality and various other things. Don’t really want to be the sort of atheist who hangs out on Christian internet sites and harangues them (I have my own site for that, after all), but I couldn’t resist this one.

I’ve also contributed in small part to a discussion involving cathedral_life on the ToothyCat Wiki, which seems to have replaced ucam.chat as the place where the Next Generation of Cambridge geeks hang out. The discussion starts off being about the Historical Jesus, moves on to talk about pigeonholing Christians, and ends up being about how many university CU members leave the faith after they leave university. Interesting stuff.

Intelligence from my logs, and from CDC‘s Special Circumstances operatives behind the enemy lines, shows a fair few CICCU people are finding the losing my religion article while out looking for CICCU information. Apart from cackling, stroking my white cat and polishing my monocle, I thought I’d say how I feel about this. I’m also linking to this from the article itself.

I wrote that page partly for catharsis, and partly because I hoped to help anyone in the same position as I was in back then. I didn’t anticipate the amount of Googlejuice I seem to have. Even so, I’m not overly concerned that the page is getting a wider audience. I do wonder what the current CICCU members who read the page take from it, though.

I imagine some of you will take it as a cautionary tale. Some of my CICCU readers will have heard speakers warning them about life after university, telling dire tales of keen CU graduates who didn’t get into a church “where the Bible is taught”, or got into a relationship with a non-Christian, and shipwrecked their faith. Neither of these things applied to me. Rather, if you want my recommendation for Christians graduating from university and wishing to avoid the slide into atheism, I must advise you to avoid thinking too much.

CICCU produced a hard, brittle faith. For those happy few who have not read Part 1A Materials Science, something hard and brittle is strong, withstanding applied force without giving very much, up to the point where enough force is applied to break it, at which point it will snap.

With hindsight, there were the beginnings of this even while I was in CICCU. If you are already wondering about biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, the wrongness of homosexuality, genocide in the OT, whether your non-Christian friends really deserve to go to Hell, whether God really will answer your prayers to evangelise China or heal your auntie’s cancer, and so on, then as you are now, so once was I. And possibly, as I am now, so you shall be (you may say it won’t happen to you, but you should probably bear in mind that I did too). Therefore, at the risk of patronising you, I will say what I would have liked someone to say to me when I was a student:

If you want to prepare yourself for the graduate afterlife, cultivate the things that will be valuable there. Among these are your friends, your education (not quite the same as your academic results), and a sense of your own self. That last one is the hardest: when you’re in search of your self, pre-packed selves look like a good deal. It is very easy to go along with a crowd, especially a crowd of nice, supportive people, but do use your (assuredly excellent) brain to examine what you’re told: the most important question to ask is “How would I know if this were wrong?”

Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you and everyone else deserves to go to hell, or anyone who implies that the most important thing about a person is what they do with their genitalia. These people have exactly as much power over you as you are willing to give them.

You are at a powerful, almost mythical, place for 3 or 4 short years. They won’t, I hope, be the best years of your life (what a horrible weight that idea puts on them), but still, we don’t call them formative for nothing. Don’t get stuck within circumscribed bounds of a society whose only purpose is to gain more members. Who knows, that way, your faith may even survive after graduation 🙂


If you’re wandering in from the link in the article, feel free to comment. There’s a “leave a comment” box kicking around at the bottom of this page somewhere.

It was board games night last night. Ended up playing Taj Mahal all evening. As it was the first time anyone had played, we spent some time setting it up and listening to Lise critique it for linguistic, historical and geographical accuracy. It was also necessary to go into the “Don’t Mention the War” routine after we discovered that the German author of the game had provided a rule about precisely how to place the cards you’re bidding with down on the table. Julie pipped me to the post in the end, with PaulB shockingly trailing both of us. Surely a sign of the emminent apocalypse. Unfortunately you get nothing for a close second, so my ranking won’t improve.

Afterwards, we ended up listening to old CFD CDs. Apparently it stands for “Computerised For Dancing”: all these years and I never knew. A whole generation of people learnt to dance to covers of pop music standards, produced by some chap with a MIDI machine putting in the requisite cheesy beats behind them (in strict tempo, of course). We resolved to have a retro General Dancing at the earliest available opportunity.

For quite naff music, it was surprisingly evocative. I largely avoid the danger of seeing university as a mythical golden age by reading the emails I wrote at the time. But I do have happy memories of cycling into town to quickstep to Walking on Sunshine , waltz to If You Don’t Know Me By Now, and to chase girls from the women’s colleges. In one of Adrian Plass’s books, he talks about how for him, Heaven would be one eternal cricket match. For me, it’d be twirling round that hall. Those were the days. Things are different now: these days, I drive.