Solitude is cool, loneliness is not

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Then you miss it. But you can also learn something along the way.

This year is the first that I am living alone, in a tiny studio flat in London. I’m trying to decide whether I like it. On balance, I think not. Having my own space is fantastic – I value seclusion more than most – but only when the seclusion can be suspended on demand. If you’ve ever had to move alone to a new city, you will know that social interactions with people whom you’ve only recently met don’t work like this. I do appreciate the peace especially after a long day at uni, but those only come twice a week, now. As usual, I want to have my cake and eat it.

At home, growing up, I could wander around the house to see what my parents and brother were up to, and school provided at least a minimum of social interaction with non-family members. As an undergrad, I lived in college for two years and in student housing with friends for another. This really was the best of both worlds: my room was my own, but I could count on having friends around at meal times and we would schedule social study breaks. I never hung out with the people on my course, but housemates and university societies kept me more than socially active.

Now, I sometimes go a whole day without speaking to anyone face-to-face. Don’t feel too sorry for me – I’m in a fantastic relationship and my life is pretty great – I’m just pointing this out as an annoying realisation of the cost of privacy. Small spells of isolation are not the end of the world, but over time, they can be pretty draining. I have discovered, through experience, why Sims have a ‘social’ meter on their needs tab. (A feature that mystified me as a child – especially the way it would completely replenish by the magic of WooHoo.)

Sims needs

It’s actually rather profound stuff. We need other people. We’re just not built to be alone for too long. So, even if I have plenty of work that can be done from home, I try not to let a day go by when I don’t leave my flat at some point. When social interactions can’t be arranged, there are a few alternatives. Skype is God’s gift to millennials, but I find that I don’t make the time for it as often as I could. More often, it’s exercise that I turn to. A brisk run is like an orgasm for the endocrine system. Some days, brief conversations with strangers (say, in the supermarket) become valuable interactions! Try not to judge me, I promise this is not as sad as it sounds.

The truth is, I am often too busy to justify the vast investments of time required for short socials in London (this place is bloody huge), so I only set aside the hours when I think it will be worth it. I know, I’m the worst. My horribly calculating brain has begun to treat social time as a transaction, only to be carried out after careful cost-benefit analysis. I also confess that, at this point in my life, meeting new people is an effort, time spent getting to know acquaintances, an investment.

The problem is compounded by my fondness of solitude, or perhaps of the industriousness that comes of it. And I realise that I am starting to sound like a grinchy hermit who chooses to ignore social gatherings by convincing himself that there are important tasks to complete alone. But I’m not too antisocial when my coursework pressure ebbs, I promise! I like going out as much as the next person, but at times there just really isn’t much going on that I can go to. Anwyay, next year I’m aiming for housemates. I’m picky about sharing living space with others – but, as I said, it’s measured on balance, innit?


In defence of the middle ground

2016 has been a year of excesses. Maybe I’ve just spent more time on the Internet, but it seems to me that opinions, on just about everything, are extreme.

It is often said that we reinforce our opinions by seeking ideologically aligned friends, news sources and Internet feeds. But finding like-minded people is not that easy. Each person’s beliefs are varied, qualified and complicated in a strictly individual way. We can’t surround ourselves with others with whom we agree with on everything. It is easier to rally around the extreme opinions, which are often the most vocal.

I’ve started to see online attempts to escape the confirmation bubble by, say, following opposed activists on Twitter. I would commend this effort, but for the polarising way in which it usually plays out. We should expose ourselves to a variety of opinions to learn from their interface—instead we draw on dissimilar opinions that will legitimise our own.

The opposite, vocal and extreme position is a convenient target for our ridicule. We find it and parade it with donkey ears, drowning out the reasonable opposition which requires more effort to criticise. Worse still, we create extreme antagonism by exalting moderate dissent into caricatured straw men, which we can safely drag into the social space of our peers to destroy.

I’m not saying we should loose our passion, our conviction and our sense of righteousness. God knows we will certainly be needing those in 2017 and the years to come. I’m saying we should celebrate and encourage moderation: not moderation in the strength of our beliefs, but the right to hold moderate beliefs firmly.

Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness. Continue reading “Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines”

Are Science and Religion compatible?

The Durham Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (DASH) hosted an event this evening with guest speaker Prof Chris Done entitled “Are Science and Religion compatible?”, and I came back with so many thoughts I had to write them down.

First, let me give you a bit of context. Prof Chris Done is both a professor of Astrophysics at Durham University and one of the leaders of Emmanuel Church Durham, which describes itself as a “charismatic, family church”. The focus of her talk was to explain how, as a “gabby, seventeen year-old atheist”, she became a Christian only when presented with “evidence” of Jesus Christ’s divine identity. For her, Jesus —specifically, Jesus accepted as the son and embodiment of God— is the only way us humans can know that God exists. God is above anything we can understand, so He reveals Himself to us through Jesus, who shares our human nature while retaining the identity of God.

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)

She therefore presents herself as living proof that science and religion are, indeed, compatible.

As an atheist scientist, I don’t actually have a problem with her position. That is, I do believe that science and religion can be compatible — just not in the way she proposes. Hear me out. Continue reading “Are Science and Religion compatible?”

The obscurity of homophobia

There is a quote doing the rounds on the Web, wrongly attributed to Morgan Freeman, which goes: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.” Rather than paste the quote unadulterated on tumblr, I thought I would expand on this fascinating topic.

Homophobia is, to me, like to so many others, a mystery. It is one of those inexplicable accounts of idiocy that now and again crop up in human history, like racism and witch-burning. Actually, no: people probably burnt ‘witches’ because they were afraid. But gays?

One Internet user put it admirably: Imagine you are queuing at McDonald’s, and you are really excited for the McNuggets you are about to order. And then the guy in front of you orders a Big Mac and suddenly you explode, enraged at the thought of him not ordering McNuggets. Such is the unfathomable irrationality of homophobia to everyone but homophobes.

To this date, I have never heard an objective argument in favour of homophobia. It is a concept impossible to defend, even by those whose life is possessed by it. The closest some come to an answer is, perhaps, in religion. However, sin is but a moral code which cannot (and should not) be made universal; therefore, if not irrational, it is at least subjective. On the other side of the spectrum, some biologists argue that homosexuality is not “natural”. Except it is. We are all the products of nature. And the goal of Life is not to reproduce. Because Life has no goals, nor does evolution.

Please write back to me if you believe some light can be shed on the obscurity of this ailment. I just want to know why? Oh, and another interesting question: why are all the World’s great homophobes male?

Ode to home

It’s a funny feeling, not being at home. A feeling I have always found difficult to analyse and therefore mistrusted. But the feeling of having a home, of knowing where home is… that is an entirely different kind of feeling. It is warm and powerful.

Having been born and raised in Spain, I cannot consider myself a true third culture kid. That is not to say I don’t have identity issues (read: belonging). There comes a point in one’s life, however, when identity stops being that much of a problem, and home is where one feels comfortable. By searching for comfort you can therefore make yourself at home wherever you go. And I find comfort in two things: stability and good company.

That is why the place where I come from calls to me strongly as “home”: it is full of comfort – full of things I know and people I love. But I now realise that there are more things to be known and people to be loved, so I can have more than one home. And that’s OK. It’s a warm and powerful feeling.

Before leaving Spain and coming to study in the UK I wrote a poem which my brother put to music. At the time it was a song about the courage to leave behind all that I knew and embrace all that I didn’t. Today it still holds true as an ode to home: that place of memories and comfort.