Crescent skies

There’s something undeniably romantic about a crescent moon in the clear evening sky, hovering over the rooftops in a scene straight from the cover of a ’50s ‘Amazing Stories’ magazine. Usually they have more than one moon, and the sky is pink, and the rooftops are either a barren wasteland or soaring, spiralling towers, but the important thing is the crescent moon, which is exotic and wonderful on this planet, let alone any other one.

When I was in Australia, I completely failed to notice that the moon waxes and wanes in the opposite direction than it does here in the northern hemisphere, or indeed that shadows fall in a different way. A friend from South Africa mentioned that this change threw her completely when she first came to England. It’s no surprise that she was affected by this more than me, given the vast and excessive amounts of artificial lighting we have here. I think it was only last December in Utah that I ever realised just how bright the full moon can be, and how sharp it can cast shadows.

Stimulated

The great thing about not regularly drinking caffeinated beverages is that when you do, you get a real kick out of it. I basically never drink anything that contains any caffeine – no tea, no Coke and definitely no coffee. Every so often though, when I drink just a single cup of tea, I’ll feel noticeably stimulated and full of energy. It even stops me from going to sleep during lectures.

I don’t intend to make a habit of drinking tea though; clearly its power is dependent on its sparing use. In fact, I would say there’s a negative exponential correlation between the frequency of tea drinking and its power; the longer I wait, the more powerful its punch. I can only imagine that the same is true (but moreso) with coffee. Since I’ve never drunk a full cup of coffee in my life, the energies waiting to be unleashed are surely beyond the ken of anyone on this world. No doubt, when it finally becomes necessary for me to harness this awesome power, it will be for some great and desperate task that my country, indeed, Earth itself, requires from me…

Introspection

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I go to sleep in lectures so often. It isn’t because I’m tired, or because I’m bored; there are plenty of times when I am both tired and bored and fail to fall asleep with the kind of dependability that I do in lectures. Nor is it because I’m sitting still for an hour; I often sit, tired and bored, for several hours and again, I don’t fall asleep. The process of sleeping is admittedly accelerated by the lecture being in a dark and warm room, but then those conditions are neither necessary nor sufficient, and of course they accelerate any form of sleeping.

And contrary to popular belief, I don’t actively try to fall asleep in lectures. In fact, for most lectures I’m engaged in a mental struggle to stay awake. It’s not as I’m not making an effort here. So what is it that’s so unique about lectures that makes me fall asleep in them?

I think it’s divided attention. A lecture consists of auditory and visual stimuli, namely a lecturer talking and perhaps some slides, that reach my sense organs and are converted into information. During lectures, I try to attend to this outside stimuli, but for some reason, I usually can’t. Traditional psychologists would say that the reason behind this is because the stimuli isn’t salient enough to keep my attention from drifting off into introspection. Which basically means, I’m not paying attention because I find the lecture boring.

I don’t agree with that; I’ve been in many lectures whose topics I find highly interesting and important and I still manage to doze off, even if only for a few seconds. I think it has more to do with the presentation of the information; that is, the nature of the stimuli. I would venture that the distilled information bandwidth of most lectures is a constant low enough to be easily processed by most people, including me, consequently leaving a fair amount of spare processing power sloshing about doing nothing (I appreciate that it’s not particularly accurate to use a computer as a metaphor for the brain, especially in terms of the brain having a linear and generalised pool of processing power, but bear with me). This spare power might be used for any number of things, which could include further processing of the lecture information, processing of other non-lecture stimuli, or simple introspection.

For me, I believe that in a lecture I use a significant portion of my brain to attend to the lecture. The rest of my brain attends to something else, such as what I’m going to cook for dinner tonight, or how to design a new kind of streetlamp cover that would reduce light pollution. For most of the time, these two attentive streams can co-exist happily and independently without infringing on each others’ processing power. But when some event occurs that upsets this balance, my introspective stream can start gobbling up processing power from my lecture stream (without my conscious notice). At this point, I stop paying attention to the lecture, which means that I essentially can’t hear or see what’s in front of me, despite being awake*. From that point, it’s an easy hop, skip and jump to falling completely asleep, which I would compare to a sort of cascading, spiralling experience in which my neurones progressively succumb to whatever signals cause me to lose consciousness.

*Obviously I can still hear and see. But I’m not paying attention to those senses, which means that if you asked me what the lecturer had just said, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Then I wake up a few seconds or at most a minute later.

It’s essential to remember that the reason this process happens with lectures and not, say, during a conversation, is because the information bandwidth is a constant, which means that my brain can (with reasonable confidence) allocate processing resources to something else. A conversation, on the other hand, has high fluctuations in information bandwidth that my brain would have to keep an eye on.

Another equally important point that I haven’t mentioned yet is that in a lecture, the only stimuli that are changing are those directly related to the lecture itself, i.e. the lecturer and his slides. The rest of the room is basically unchanging. So, to push the computer analogy even further, imagine that my brain encodes auditory and visual information via a compression akin to MPEG; in other words, it only pays attention to things that change. If I stop paying attention to the lecturer and his slides, then I’m not paying attention to any external stimuli at all! This provides another compelling reason why I don’t just spontaneously fall asleep while walking around Oxford.

Finally, I think this happens to me rather than to everyone is to do with the balance between my two attentive streams. The possibilities are that lectures (for some reason) are unusually poor at holding my attention, or my imagination is overactive, or my attention-switching mechanism is kerjiggered.

It is, I believe, a very seductive and compelling hypothesis that is more satisfactory than my previous ‘energy conserving brain’ hypothesis – perhaps even worthy of more investigation…

For everything else…

iBook G4 800mhz: £750
Airport Extreme card: £70
Bluetooth module: £30

Watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with friends on a two hour coach journey along the M25 in the rain: Priceless

There are some things computers can’t do. For everything else, there’s Apple.

(Oh yeah, and I heard you can do work on these things as well…)

Ecclesiastes

I’ve seen this hauntingly beautiful phrase from Ecclesiastes twice in the past week, in the context of Orwell’s essay on the English language:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

If only I could write like that…

Facts and things

Facts from around the world!

In South Africa, they use the same word for ‘demonstration’ and ‘riot’, according to a friend from Cape Town who was alarmed to read about the mass ‘riots’ taking place in London for Bush’s visit.

In Australia, when the public transport workers go on strike, they don’t go home. Instead, they go to work as normal but they don’t charge anyone. Clearly an idea whose time has come for the London Underground (and Post Office).

In other news, I played my first ever competitive doubles game of badminton for the college second team this morning, and lost both matches. I’m still fairly pleased with my performance though, considering that our college team has never practiced together, or even met before today, whereas our opponents had clearly practiced a fair bit before. My partner and I lost the the first game 4-15 although we managed to rally towards the end. I don’t think we had enough of a warmup.

The second game was much better; our opponents were slightly better than in the first game, but we still managed to pull ahead to 11-6 at one point. There was a lot of fast play going on that left me unusually out of breath, probably because I’d donated blood the previous day. Unfortunately they went on to win 11-15 due to a run of bad luck (for us) and some silly errors on our part.

I finally got my iBook yesterday in a highly circuitous route which I don’t feel like recounting. The important thing is that I have a highly shiny iBook G4 800 12″ sitting in front of me. Here’s what I spent part of yesterday doing (times are approximate):

0h – 1h: Booted it up and used the installation disks. Made appreciative noises as I explored OSX. Got frustrated about using the touchpad.

1h – 2h: Connected the iBook to my wireless network, which was not as easy as it could have been due to my total unfamiliarity with OSX and Windows being difficult. Tried to figure out how to transfer files across, and failed.

2h – 3h: Figured out how to transfer files by FTP. Realised that the utterly dismal transfer rate of 50k/s wasn’t going to cut it for 10GBs worth of stuff. Decided to use IP over Firewire.

3h – 3:30h: IP over Firewire didn’t work, so I tried booting up the iBook as a dumb Firewire drive. Windows refused to recognise the iBook’s HD, although it did see its DVD drive. Wow, that’s really useful, Windows…

3:30h – 4h: Tried IP over Firewire again. Finally got it working by disabling my other network connection on Windows. Marvelled at the 2MB/s transfer rate.

4h – 5h: Copied over all my files. Got irritated about OSX not recognising unusual characters in filenames, e.g. �.

5h – 6h: Realised that I made an apparently fatal mistake by transferring the files over using the ‘wrong’ FTP account, thus resulting in non-ideal file permissions. Spent a fruitless 30 minutes moving them between shared and public folders in vain attempt to alter permissions. Began to think that it might have been easier to get a Windows laptop.

6h – 6:30h: Hit upon the brilliant idea of trying to change the file permissions using the admin user, which worked, but took far too long since I was doing it folder by folder, file by file.

6:30h – 6:35h: Suddenly thought, “Hey, this is Unix, I shouldn’t have to do this crap, I should be able to do it all from the command line.” Googled for suitable command and changed all directory and file permissions in the blink of an eye. Felt suitably power-user-ish.

6:35h – 7h: Finally got iTunes to see all my music. Tried importing several thousand photos into iPhoto and stopped when I saw it was just copying all of them. Still don’t have a good solution for this.

7h – 8h: All the files now copied. Installed Office X, and then Fire, OSXVNC and VLC. Was utterly amazed by the ease of installation and never being asked to restart the computer. Decided that it really was a good idea not to buy a Windows laptop. Set up a special Windows VNC client that allows me to use my Windows keyboard and mouse for the iBook.

8h – 8:30h: Gazed lovingly at Aqua goodness and the speed of Preview. Wasted a few minutes playing around with Expos� and Fast User Switching. Looked at the clock and decided it was time for bed.

Perfect Circle

One of the more annoying aspects of my PhD course at Oxford is that I have to go to these ‘Personal Development Course’ events every so often, which are about as bad as they sound. In fact, all new biology graduates have to go to them, perhaps fifty in total. The first one, held some time ago now, was about a team building exercise run by some enthusiastic and evangelic (yet sarcastic) organiser, and he made us do a bunch of puzzles and exercise in groups with a whole load of personality tests. I’m pretty familiar with most of this stuff having done it at Cambridge and school, and in any case, I already know what personality type I am.

There was one interesting puzzle he made us do, though. You had to get into pairs and each take a metre-long piece of string with loops in either end. Each person put their hands through the loops while facing their partner such that their arms and string formed two circles that intersected each other. The challenge was to break apart the two circles without removing the string.

I imagined I knew the answer to this one, which I thought would involve the people putting their arms around each other or some equally woolly stuff. After a fruitless few minutes where no-one succeeded, he demonstrated that you were supposed to use some trickery where you fed the string of one through the hand-loop in the end of another. Everyone looked distinctly unimpressed and cheated.

By this point of the morning, we all knew that he was a very pseudo-psychology kinda guy and clearly didn’t like ‘science’, so when he went up to the front of the room to say something, we knew what to expect.

“How many of you gave up before the time had run out?” he asked, in glee.

Most people put their hands up sheepishly.

“Ahhh! That’s because you all thought you knew that two circles couldn’t be broken, right? But if you kept on trying and forgot about what you knew then you would have found out the answer! So why did you give up so easily?” he positively crowed.

Everyone in the audience had their heads bowed, defeated by this charlatan. I, however, was furious and decided to defend the home team of Science and put my hand up.

“It’s because there really is no way of breaking two perfect circles,” I challenged.

He looked quite pleased at this and decided to make an example of this independent thinker in front of him. “Oh yeah? Are you really sure about that?” he said, after lazily looking around the room.

I could tell that this was leading into a trap, but continued on nevertheless. “Pretty damn sure. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a large amount of money on it.”

“Okay,” he laughed, sensing victory. “What about those people who were sure that the Earth was flat, and would have bet money on it? What about those people who didn’t believe the Earth went around the sun? Do you still think you’d win that bet?”

“Yeah. Either way, I’m not going to be paying out before I die, that’s for sure,” I said triumphantly. Science 1 – Woolly Thinking 0!

Immediately, the massed ranks of scientists broke into cheers and I accepted high-fives from everyone as I took a victory lap around the room before being mobbed, raised onto their shoulders and lead out into the street in celebration. Meanwhile the organiser broke down into tears, renounced his faith and can now be found in Oxford Library reading Carl Sagan books.

It’s all true. Well, maybe not the last bit, but they did break out into cheers…

Vignettes of an active lifestyle

After I got back from Australia in August, I started doing an awful lot of exercise so that I might develop some good habits that would last in Oxford. I hadn’t been to the gym for about a year or so, and so when I went there and did my usual workout, I basically felt like I was going to die, or at the very least, have a heart attack. When I went two days later, I felt even worse afterwards.

Eventually it got a bit better, and then a lot better. I was pleased to see that there wasn’t anyone else in the local gym who could beat my split time on the rowing machine, although admittedly this was more due to rowing technique than actual fitness. In any case, one happy result of this increased exercise was that I could play football without collapsing into a heap after twenty minutes.

The only problem with all of this was that I was conspicuously not losing weight. I wasn’t gaining weight either, and while I knew that I was probably gaining muscle mass while losing fat, it didn’t make me feel much better.

Of course, the simple answer to this problem presented itself when I got to Oxford: eat less. It’s remarkable how much less you eat when you:

a) have to buy everything yourself and
b) have to cook everything yourself

I’ve kept up the exercise here at Oxford and I’ve also started running and playing badminton a few times a week.

Running always seemed like a sucker’s game to me. What was the point? You just end up doing your knees in and being bored. I used to run for a couple of miles every so often when I was at school, but that didn’t last for long – probably because the only place I could run was along a busy road, down a slope. Not exactly ideal conditions.

Unlike Oxford. I live about a minute’s walk away from Christchurch Meadows, which in itself has a wonderful running route over a mile long that meanders along a stream, over bridges and beside pastures. Even better, it joins onto a path alongside the River Isis that goes on much further than I’ve ever run (only a few miles, admittedly).

Back in October and early November, when I ran in the evenings, the views and sunsets were absolutely spectacular. I managed to increase my length of running from 30 minutes to 60 within a few weeks and these days the problem isn’t getting tired, it’s not being able to see where I’m running.

Once, when I was out running in my usual T-shirt and shorts, I got stopped by a couple of teenagers on my way back to my room at college.

“Hey, stop! Yeah, stop!”

I stopped and wondered whether they intended to try and rob me of my Domokun keyring or something.

“Yeah?” I said guardedly.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked one, concerned.

“Uh, no.”

“But you’re only wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and it’s freezing,” he said, gesticulating wildly. It was indeed quite cold that evening.

“Yeah, but I’m running. It warms you up. You should try it,” I replied.

He shook his head skeptically, and with that, I set off running back home in a decent pace with a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Anyway, despite all of this exercise, when I went to Cambridge and met up with a friend, she exclaimed, “Hey Adrian, have you lost-?” and then glanced downward and continued, “Nah, you haven’t.” Then again, she is known to be a particularly ungenerous individual when it comes to anything to do with me…

A Badminton Vignette

I know this game will be challenging; I’ve played against my partner, and I know that he’s pretty good. Not amazing, but he’s got a lot of power and finesse. We’re well matched against our two opponents, a male and female. Individually, I would say that we’re better than either one of them, but I’ve seen them play together and they’re perfectly complementary, each knowing exactly which shots to take and which to leave. A game of tactics, then.

We advance our points practically in lockstep and there are some furious rallies. One moment stands out in my mind as the shuttlecock arches over my head and I have to twist backwards to tap it back over the net. Almost immediately, it’s smashed back over my left shoulder and I have to desperately spin to my right, hoping that my racket will collide with it. It does, and the point isn’t lost.

Some time later, after a quick exchange of drop shots and miniscule taps over the net, the score is 13-14 to our opponents. My partner and I know we can still win this game, and we almost do after I manage to scoop a smash up from the floor and skim it to the far corner of the court. Almost, because the smash was deflected by my partner. But our opponents still look dismayed, and I explain, “I think that was a double touch.” My partner says, “You don’t have to be so honest,” and then smiles.

Afterwards, I ask the winners how long they’ve been playing together for. They look pleased as they answer.

“Oh, only two or three games. We just met today.”

Lyra’s Oxford

Update: I’ve added a large amount of text throughout this article with my recent findings; the additions are all in italics.

A few minutes ago I just finished reading Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, a very short story set in the His Dark Materials universe. The story was pleasant enough, but the really interesting thing about the book (it’s a little cloth-bound hardback book) is the foldout map of his imaginary Oxford and the articles and adverts scattered, unacknowledged, throughout its pages.

These ephemera at first appear to be mostly unrelated to the story and consist of the map, a two-page excerpt from a historical guide to Oxford, a postcard sent from our Oxford by a scientist and an advert for a cruise to the Levant.

The simplest explanation is that Pullman wanted to use these things as extras, to enrich his universe. However, there are two very strong reasons for believing that there is more to it than that. In his introduction, he talks about how,

‘All these tattered old bits and pieces have a history and meaning. A group of them together can seem like the traces left by an ionising particle in a bubble chamber: they draw the line of a path taken by something too mysterious to see. That path is a story, of course. What scientists do when they look at the line of the bubbles on the screen is work out the story of the particle that made them: what sort of particle it must have been, and what caused it to move in that way, and how long it was likely to continue.’

He then goes on to say that the postcard – from ‘our’ universe – is also part of the mysterious story. Interestingly, he hardly mentions the story within the book, called ‘Lyra and the Birds’ at all. So that’s reason number one.

Reason number two, which is really a number of sub-reasons, is more apparent to me than it might be to other people, perhaps because I played the AI game, replete with meaning and codes and mysteries. This second reason concerns all the ephemera in the book.

Mapping the Unknown

Let’s start with the foldout map. One side of it is an old-style streetmap of his imaginary Oxford, which is simple enough and is a wonderful thing for me to marvel at because I recognise all the places and subtle differences in it. It’s amusing to see that the coach station in our world is inhabited by the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station in theirs.

The other side of the foldout has a map of Oxfordshire, which merely shows the outlines of the different regions within it. This map has a grid on it, and tellingly, parts of Oxfordshire are packaged up into different boxes that do not correspond to the grid. I suppose they could represent possible administrative areas within Pullman’s universe, but it doesn’t seem that way. If playing the AI game has taught me anything, it is that you don’t go and produce a map like that in an expensive book for no reason. There is a reason for it to be there, and I think the boxes may have something to do with it.

On the sides of the foldout are three panels. The first panel has a list of other maps that you could buy, all with intriguing names like ‘Mejico and the Isthmus’, ‘Magyar Republic’ and ‘The Austral Empire’. I wonder if these are significant. The second panel is ‘A Selection of Catalogues offering articles of great use to the Traveller’, including things like camping equipment and artist’s materials. The final panel is a list of books on travel, archaeology and related subjects, with titles such as ‘The Proto-Fisher People of L’Anse aux Meadows by Leonard Broken Arrow, D.Phil, F.R.A.S.’

I do think there is something going on with the map, and also with its publishers, Smith and Strange Ltd., who are based in Oxford.

An excerpt from a Parallel Universe

The next piece of interesting material is the excerpt from the guide on Oxford. This excerpt concerns a small area northwest of the centre of Oxford called Jericho (which is a real place). The most interesting passage in the excerpt is about a historical person who bears a great resemblance to someone in Lyra and the Birds, but I won’t go further than that (you can buy the book yourself!). But the majority of the excerpt talks about The Eagle Ironworks, The Oxford Canal, the Fell Press and The Oratory of St. Barnabas the Chymist. There’s an awful lot of information and details packed into those two pages which could hide anything.

Update: I have done a spot of research on this, which has uncovered some interesting facts. There is also an Eagle Ironworks in our world, occupying the same spot, but interestingly, it’s referred to by many people as ‘Lucy’s Ironworks’. It was founded by a W. Lucy in 1825; a different person and date than in the ‘other’ Oxford. Sharp-eyed readers will note that the alchemist referred to in the excerpt is also called Lucy, and his daemon was an eagle. On my search, I found a book called The Eagle Ironworks Oxford : the story of W. Lucy and Company Limited by P.W.S. Andrews, written in 1965. It’s available in several Oxford libraries and I may go and have a look some time.

As for The Fell Press, this is known as the Oxford University Press in our world. In an interview, Pullman commented mischievously, “Dr Fell, the origin of the rhyme �I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell, but this I know and know full well, I do not like thee Dr Fell�, was one of the original directors of the Oxford University Press and it was named after him. But you may read it as you like. Everything has meaning!”

St. Barnabas Church also exists in our world, and its architect, Sir Arthur Blomfield, remains the same. I can’t figure out who St. Barnabas is supposed to be though; in our world, he was one of the Apostles. He certainly wasn’t alive in Palmyra in the 3rd century. Perhaps this isn’t surprising though, since the excerpt refers to the ‘lesser St. Barnabas, a saint otherwise little celebrated’; I wouldn’t be surprised if this person just doesn’t exist in our world. I suspect Pullman is playing a little trick here by reusing Barnabas’ name.

The Beguiling Postcard

The postcard is an interesting puzzle. It appears to have been written by a newly arrived scientist in (our) Oxford to a friend. The scientist is Mary Malone, a familiar figure to readers of His Dark Materials.

Why is the postcard a puzzle? Because the photos on its front are of a bench in the Botanic Garden (I walk past it almost every day), the University Science Buildings, a row of trees on a street and a house. In other words, the photos make absolutely no sense whatsoever; no-one in their right mind would choose them for an Oxford postcard. Mary herself spends most of her writing space on the postcard remarking about the photos. Curiouser and curiouser…

Update: Andrew Cunningham has pointed out that the bench is Lyra and Will’s from The Amber Spyglass, the University Science buildings probably represent where Mary discovered Dust, the row of trees was where Will cut his first portal and the house is Will’s. Yet I still wonder if there is more… perhaps the locations of these places in the ‘other’ Oxford has significance?

A Meeting in Smyrna

The final piece of the mystery is a three page guide to a ‘Cruise by S.S. Zenobia to The Levant’. It has the usual advertising bumph of the wondrousness of the Levant and so on. What we’re interested in, though is the list of dates and arrival and departure times in the various cities the ship visits. One particular city has been circled – Smyrna, on Monday, May 11, 8am. Pointing towards this circle is a bit of handwriting that says ‘Caf� Antalya, Suleiman Square, 11am’.

Update: The name Zenobia also crops up earlier, in that the lesser St. Barnabas was an experimental theologian living in Palmyra, and the perfumer-in-chief to Queen Zenobia. There really was a Queen Zenobia who ruled Palmyra from 267 to 272. In 269 she proclaimed herself as Queen of Egypt and many believe that she was descended from Cleopatra VII; there’s more at Wikipedia. Palmyra is now known as Tadmor, in Syria.

I believe Smyrna (now Izmir, in Turkey) is in the same area as Palmyra. Izmir is home to the shrine of the Virgin Mary, where she is said to have spent her later days. Antalya is also the name of a city on the south Mediterranean coast of Turkey. According to Wikipedia, the Levant is an approximate geographical term referring to an area roughly bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and the Zagros Mountains in the east.

Is there a cafe called Antalya in our Smyrna (Izmir)? Not as far as I can tell, and I can’t find a Suleiman Square either, but I certainly could be wrong. Is there any significance to the date of May 11th? Again, no.

Why?

Why is that city circled? Why is there an apparently empty map of Oxfordshire taking up a huge amount of space in the book? Why do the photos on the postcard make no sense?

There is a boring explanation, and there is an interesting explanation – just like everything in the world. The boring explanation is that they mean nothing, or at most, they are only related to events in Pullman’s next book called The Book of Dust, whose release date no-one wants to guess about. This would make some sense because Lyra and the Birds was originally part of The Book of Dust until Pullman decided to publish it as a separate short story.

If we were to believe this explanation, we would just read the story, be puzzled by the ephemera and forget about the whole thing.

But I don’t believe it. Pullman spells out in his introduction that ‘all these tattered bits and pieces have a history and a meaning’. They tell a story that is hidden yet apparent. In Lyra and the Birds, Lyra struggles to find the meaning of a series of events that seemingly have none; she eventually succeeds (she thinks). Pullman says at the end of his introduction,

‘The story in this book [Lyra and the Birds] is partly about that very process.’

and the process he speaks of is of scientific investigation, and of considering things that we don’t understand.

Lyra’s Oxford is more than just a short story and a collection of colourful extras. Pullman has set us a mystery, and judging by his past works, it’s going to be interesting.

Update: Everything points to something happening in Palmyra or Smyrna in the past. I think that in the other universe, there was a lesser St. Barnabas who somehow changed events and got caught up with Dust, and also with Queen Zenobia (she seems rather more prominent in that universe than in ours). I’m now pretty sure that The Book of Dust will concern itself with these events. I’m not sure if there is any more to find out…