Last week I dreamt about David Marsh. David was the father of my best friend at school, Larry. David died in a tragic domestic accident when Larry was just ten years of age and I can’t recall ever dreaming about him; if I had, it must have been decades ago. With his thinning hair, Michael Caine glasses and jokey personality, David was his same fun self. He teased me about my shy and foolish boyhood ways, and although I was pretty sure he was wrong on a couple of facts, I didn’t challenge the validity of any of his recollections – it was cool being with him again and I didn’t want to kill the vibe. On waking, I couldn’t fathom why after fifty years (!) had passed, should I dream about David. I was left wondering if it was because another member of his family had just died: his widow Valerie, younger son Sean, or indeed Larry himself. My friendship with Lawrence Bennett Marsh (a fun guy, much like his 1960’s-cool dad) had been more on than off, but we’d lost touch just before the internet era and I have no way of knowing what has become of the Marsh family.
Jeremy England is an academic based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wonders if physics, his specialist subject, might be better placed than biology to explain the emergence of life on earth. Clues to this idea lie in the way sand drifts to form complex dune patterns, and in the capacity of water to build beautifully intricate snowflakes. Neither last of course: sand dunes collapse and snowflakes dissolve, but for a while at least they cheat what is called the second law of thermodynamics, namely the cast-iron rule that everything must become increasingly dis-organised. Disintegrate, essentially. Any reader who like me has moved into their later years will know all about this: creaking joints, thinning hair…I won’t go on. But our earlier astounding progression from a microscopic fertilized egg to a fully grown being passing their driving test defied the second law of thermodynamics: we (and all other living things) become ever larger, more complex and personally organised as we advance towards maturity. One of the big unanswered questions is: how can this happen, when everything in the universe should simply be disintegrating? For the past hundred years we’ve assumed that there is some special anti-disintegration (or anti-entropy) property within life. Jeremy England is now showing us there might be another explanation. He has taken very basic chemicals, poured them into a liquid and subjected the mix to some sustained shaking. As a consequence some of the chemicals began to link up, organizing themselves to form more complex structures. In short, their behaviour was lifelike. They pulled off this trick by exploiting some of the energy Jeremy had put into the mix, while pushing some out as heat. This process, known as dissipative adaption, suggests that matter can exploit energy to develop into building blocks of life. It’s still a long way to the formation of amino acids or protein, or the making the giant step to reproduction, but it does demonstrate that at its most basic (i.e. at the level of individual chemicals), nature has an ability to put itself together. Jeremy England’s finding is delightful supporting evidence for Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century prediction that given their ability to arrange themselves to form molecules, atoms might be “knowing bodies”.
Following an enjoyable and intriguing meeting with attendees of the annual festival of Death and Dying in Somerset. Not everyone’s idea of a fun weekend, but it was raining and some of us don’t much care for shopping trips. Death doulahs, artists, the newly bereaved, health professionals and the broadly curious rubbed shoulders to explore human mortality from as many angles as can be imagined. My slot occupied almost two hours, and to be honest I felt that there were many areas we had barely touched on. Most fascinating to me were the uncanny childhood and young adult experiences volunteered by some of the attendees; I don’t feel I have the right to tell these stories of others, so I will just say that I hope we are entering an era where we feel more free to disclose, share and ponder such extraordinary experiences.
One such tale was told to me by Bob Fischer on his BBC Tees radio programme a couple of nights ago. Bob is a cultural omnivore, who moves effortlessly from discussing kids TV theme tunes to describing Plato’s theory of essences. His account of meeting in a dream his very dear friend who had died was both touching and funny. Bob asked his friend if seeing as he had been able to visit him temporarily that night, couldn’t he just return on a permanent basis. I think Bob’s mate was half-amused by the question. “Ahhh, you’ll find out, but it doesn’t really work like that,” he answered. He’d been given special leave of absence just to make this one vital reappearance.
The whole interview can be accessed for the next three weeks at
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07qjgwq The interview begins at 2.06.40
6th November 2019,
I spent over an hour last month in conversation with Shawn Ram and Joshua Black, experts in the relatively obscure world of grief dreams, the nocturnal psychodramas of the bereaved. In addition to listening to my own accounts of dreams associated with death, the perceptive and breezy Canadians offered some of their own fascinating insights. Among these were reports by parents bereaved by suicide of being visited in their dreams by their dead child, who was able to tell them exactly why they had been compelled to take their own life. Extraordinary and deeply sensitive work by two dedicated pioneers in the field of dream research.