28 September 2014

The fear of breakthroughs

text of a letter to an academic

I remember that you once asked me why schools, even the Ursuline convent school, wanted me to do maths in preference to physics, which is what I wanted to do. I said, “I don’t know. It was crazy.”

But actually, although none of the rationalisations which were expressed or hinted at held water, it seems clear that everyone was afraid of my doing research in an area where I might easily find out something fundamentally groundbreaking.

Albert Einstein
in 1921
Theoretical physics bought you up against the inadequacy of the current set of concepts about the physical world, and that was why I wanted to do it. I felt a little like Einstein when he said:
We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which the books are written. *
When I was attending the Ursuline school, aged about eleven, my father thought it was now appropriate to ask me what I wanted to do in life. I replied without hesitation, “I am going to be a physicist and do research.” My father looked a bit shocked but also, as his initial reaction, impressed. But later I found that both he and everyone else opposed my doing physics. In fact, there was opposition to everything that I did want to do, including getting more degrees than other people, and doing so at an earlier age. So there was not only opposition to my doing research in physics, but to all my ideas for working towards that end result.

However, it is now seems likely that what underlay all the rationalisations, which were supposed to justify making me do something I did not want to do, was an absolute fear of the breakthroughs which I might make, in view of my lack of inhibitions. The same thing has also been true of my attempts to start doing research in the areas associated with perception and hallucination, in which I opened up what could have been new areas of research, operating with extremely limited resources.

In fact, everyone all along has been afraid of my doing any research at all, and actually quite rightly so. As I am uninhibited in considering possibilities, I certainly would have made at least a few breakthroughs, if I had not been prevented from doing anything at all.

It is still true that I would make progress very rapidly in either physics or the psychology of perception, if not kept rigorously starved of financial support.

* quoted in Denis Brian, Einstein: A Life, John Wiley, 1996.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

25 September 2014

Innate ability, and its enemies

The belief system associated with the egalitarian ideology has been increasing in influence for a long time, and is now overwhelmingly dominant.
Splitting pupils as young as six into classes based on ability – known as streaming – makes the brightest children brighter but does little to help the rest to catch up, according to new research into schools in England.

The analysis of the progress made by 2500 six and seven-year-olds in state primary schools in England, conducted by academics at the Institute of Education in London, found that the use of streaming appears to entrench educational disadvantage compared with the results of pupils who were taught in all-ability classes.

“Children in the top stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the middle or bottom streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress,” wrote the authors, Susan Hallam and Samantha Parsons.

The research ... [is] to be presented on Thursday at the British Educational Research Association annual conference ...

The authors [of the research report] conclude that the widespread use of streaming will do little or nothing to arrest the difficulties faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those whose parents have low levels of education ...

“The data suggest that streaming undermines the attempts of governments to raise attainment for all children whatever their socio-economic status,” the paper concludes. “Overall, the evidence indicates that streaming, particularly where it begins at a very early age, is likely to be counterproductive in reducing the attainment gap.” (The Guardian, 25 September 2014)
Celia Green with mother,
Dorothy Green (née Cleare)
My own case might seem to provide a counterexample to the idea that there are no innate individual differences influencing ability and development. Early in my life, when the modern ideology was less dominant, my exceptionality was often commented upon. An early example of this was told to me by my mother several decades after it happened. A few weeks after I was born, some sort of health visitor or nursing aid for new mothers was helping my mother to bathe me. Presumably this person had a wide experience of babies, but she expressed surprise about me, soon after seeing me for the first time. She said something on the lines of:

“Gosh, isn’t she intelligent!”

“How do you know?” my mother said.

“It’s the way she looks at things,” the nurse said.

It did not appear to be the case, as people would like to think, that recognition of my exceptionality at an early age had no predictive value for my later development.

When I was two, I was found to be able to read. When I was ten, I came top of the Essex County grammar school scholarship exam. When I was seventeen, I was awarded the top scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford.

However, as time passed, and the modern ideology gained ground, people told me more often that I was not special, I was just an ordinary person, and that no conclusion could be drawn from early precocity.

At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated and deprived of opportunity, since what might have been regarded as indications of my exceptionality aroused hostility and obstructiveness.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

22 September 2014

Professor Otto Frisch and psychokinesis

Of course I knew when I was thrown out, to try to do research in the wilderness, that there was no sympathy with my position or predicament. I did not suppose that there was any great motivation in the world for the advancement of science per se, but the absolute negativity of the response to anything I could produce as evidence of my ability to make progress was a constant surprise, even to me, and one concludes that only the most absolute restriction and obstruction is to be expected. That is a simple law of human psychology, although not totally easy to understand.

Professor Otto Frisch FRS
(1904 -1979)
To give one example, the late Professor Otto Frisch of Cambridge University, who had been involved in the development of the atom bomb, once said to me that if there was such a thing as PK (psychokinesis), every physicist in the world should drop whatever they were doing and work on nothing else. This showed a theoretical recognition of its importance, although it would have been a stupid way of tackling the problem.

At that time, Professor Frisch asked me whether, among all the cases of possible PK that I had ever read or heard about, there was one that provided conclusive proof of the existence of PK. Of course I said that there was not, because proof of anything is, strictly speaking, impossible. However cast-iron a case might seem to be, the possibility would always remain that one’s informant was lying or misremembering. Professor Frisch seemed relieved at this, and said he was glad to hear me say that, so that he did not have to feel under pressure to organise any research into PK at all.

Now if somebody with my IQ, who has done enough relevant research of a respectable kind, has a lot of information and ideas about the possible psychology of PK, this would appear to be an opportunity for a scientific breakthrough potentially of such magnitude as to constitute a fairly irrefutable claim on funding. Especially considering the billions that are annually poured into totally futile ‘research’ guaranteed to lead to no outcome of any importance whatever.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

21 September 2014

A friend in need

Text of a recent letter to a potential associate, whom I had known as a child, and with whom I had corresponded some months ago.

Dear ...

I was disappointed that you did not come to visit me here after you had apparently said that you would. You seemed to want to reminisce about an earlier stage of my life, and I could hardly think of doing that without correcting the misinterpretations that have always been placed upon me (and, of course, on my father as well). And when I talk about my past, I really want to get more of my past history into writing, which means dictating and editing.

Maybe you, or any other visitor, would be willing and/or able to help with the secretarial work that will go with doing this, when I am able to do it, but in any case it would be a break for me to have a visitor. Until people have made some contact with me here, there is certainly no possibility of their passing on any information about me, my need for new people, and my need for money, to other people, and this information is what I need to get spread around.

Anyway, could you not come and visit as a favour to me. Any new people might make a tremendous difference to me, and even a very temporary visitor who might pass something on would give me a boost.

Follow-up letter by me, in response to his reply.

Dear ...

It is interesting that you make it explicit that you will not visit me if I make the condition that I talk to you about my situation.

It has often seemed to me that this must be the reason for visitors rushing away soon after turning up, but you are the first person to make it explicit that you do not want to hear anything about my situation.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

14 September 2014

Serviam (‘I will serve’)

Further to the previous post, the following is another extract from The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

This episode occurs soon after The Rat starts to live with Stefan Loristan (the exiled king), his son Marco and his servant Lazarus. The Rat goes to Lazarus’s room to talk to him, and to ask what he can do to serve Loristan.
“I want to find out everything he [Loristan] likes and everything he doesn’t like,” The Rat said. “I want—isn’t there anything—anything you’d let me do for him? It wouldn’t matter what it was. And he needn’t know you are not doing it. I know you wouldn’t be willing to give up anything particular. But you wait on him night and day. Couldn’t you give up something to me?”
Lazarus pierced him with keen eyes. He did not answer for several seconds.
“Now and then,” he said gruffly at last, “I'll let you brush his boots. But not every day—perhaps once a week.”
“When will you let me have my first turn?” The Rat asked.
Lazarus reflected. His shaggy eyebrows drew themselves down over his eyes as if this were a question of state.
“Next Saturday,” he conceded. “Not before. I’ll tell him when you brush them.”
“You needn’t,” said The Rat. “It’s not that I want him to know. I want to know myself that I’m doing something for him. I’ll find out things that I can do without interfering with you. I’ll think them out.”
“Anything any one else did for him would be interfering with me,” said Lazarus.
The attitude of wanting to serve an admired person by doing useful things for them is very much at variance with the attitude of employees nowadays. The richest and most famous are left to eat cold food alone on Christmas Day, or after a late-night performance, so that their assistants, however highly paid, can give priority to their own interests.

Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett had spent decades of her life in social environments where attitudes like that of The Rat and Lazarus were much easier to observe and imagine. The attitudes ascribed to Loristan’s associates seem to go beyond what might arise from wishing to curry favour with someone who could confer advantages upon you.

The average modern employee seems to reject considerations, such as currying favour with his employer, or doing something for idealistic reasons, as being beneath him or her.

* Serviam is the motto of the Ursuline convent schools, one of which I attended for four years after coming top of the Essex Grammar School Scholarship exam.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

12 September 2014

The Lost Prince

The following are extracts from The Lost Prince* written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1915. This is the story of Stefan Loristan, the exiled King of Samavia (a fictional European country), and his son Marco, a boy of about 12. The story is apparently set in the late eighteen hundreds or very early nineteen hundreds.

When the story starts, they are living in poverty in dingy lodgings in London with their loyal servant, an ex-soldier called Lazarus. Marco has made friends with a street boy nicknamed ‘The Rat’. The Rat is the leader of a group of street boys who wear ragged clothes, go barefoot, and do not go to school. One evening, The Rat comes to the lodgings and says that his father has died in a drunken fit. Marco and his father welcome him, and The Rat clearly wants to stay with them.
... Loristan did not turn and walk away. He looked deep into the lad’s eyes as if he were searching to find some certainty. Then he said in a low voice, ‘You know how poor I am’ ... ‘I am so poor that I am not sure that I can give you enough dry bread to eat – always. Marco and Lazarus and I are often hungry. Sometimes you might have nothing to sleep on but the floor. But I can find a place for you if I take you with me,’ said Loristan. ‘Do you know what I mean by a place?’
‘Yes, I do,’ answered The Rat. ‘It’s what I’ve never had before – sir.’
Later in the story, Marco’s father has left the lodgings and the landlady, Mrs Beedle, is worried about whether they can pay the rent.
‘That’s just what I want to find out about,’ put in [Mrs Beedle]. ‘When is he [Marco’s father] coming back?’
‘I do not know,’ answered Marco.
‘That’s it,’ said Mrs Beedle. ‘You’re old enough to know that two big lads and a fellow like that can’t have food and lodgin’s for nothing ... Your father’s out of sight. He,’ jerking her head towards Lazarus, ‘paid me for last week. How do I know he will pay me for this week!’
‘The money is ready,’ roared Lazarus.
‘Is there so little money left?’ said Marco. ‘We have always had very little. When we had less than usual, we lived in poorer places and were hungry if it was necessary. We know how to go hungry. One does not die of it.’
The big eyes under Lazarus’s beetling brows filled with tears.
‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘one does not die of hunger. But the insult – the insult! That is unendurable.’
After finding out that they have enough money to cover the rent for one, possibly two more weeks if they are very frugal:
‘Never mind,’ said Marco. ‘Never mind. We will go away the day we can pay no more.’
‘I can go out and sell newspapers,’ said The Rat’s sharp voice. ‘I’ve done it before. Crutches help you to sell them. The platform would sell ’em faster still. I’ll go out on the platform.’
‘I can sell newspapers, too,’ said Marco.
Lazarus uttered an exclamation like a groan.
‘Sir,’ he cried, ‘no, no! Am I not here to go out and look for work? I can carry loads. I can run errands.’
‘We will all three begin to see what we can do,’ Marco said.
In the pre-Welfare State world, people’s minds were constantly preoccupied with the urgent need for money to buy food, pay the rent, and support their families; and for work as a way of obtaining money. Therefore people wanted to do what other people wanted, in order to be paid for it. As a result, the motivation to ‘get at’ other people, by making them do things for themselves, was suppressed.

People had been selected, for centuries if not millennia, by being able to do better than other people in these circumstances.

Once there is a Welfare State, which removes the threat of starvation, people start to interact with one another on quite different terms, and this affects everything that goes on, not only the attitude to working – such as people’s levels of politeness and honesty.

* Illustration taken from the US 1915 edition, published by The Century Company, New York.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

08 September 2014


I have always had a strong principle against getting into debt, as had my parents.

The accepted attitude towards being in debt changed abruptly in 1945 after the Second World War, and this was obviously an important element in the oncoming ideology.

In the modern world, nominal loans are often made, with little or no expectation that they will ever be repaid. Perhaps this is considered to be less insulting to the recipient. When I was a poor student, with no grant and not even a small salary (and not in receipt of any state benefit), people sometimes offered me loans of this kind, seeing that I was short of money and with no real expectation of repayment. These I never accepted, although I would have accepted an outright gift. And now I certainly would not accept any gift of money if I had any reason to think that the donor regarded it as a loan.

In general, my associates and I are too aware of the existential uncertainty to place themselves at anyone’s mercy by getting into debt.

Not only do people offer gifts as if they were loans; they also ask for gifts as if they were loans. When one of my colleagues was at school, a rather demoralised working-class friend quite often asked her to lend her something, which she did, but without expecting to get it back – and she did not ever get it back. She never asked for it back, and regarded these ‘loans’ as outright gifts as soon as her friend asked for them.

Nowadays being in debt, rather than having savings, increases eligibility for benefits. This is rewarding irresponsibility, and hence penalising responsibility. As Polonius in Hamlet (c.1601) says:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.