Saturday, 2 May 2009

The epitome of civilisation

1. I am a member of the Sir Frederic Madden Society, a group so obscure that they leave almost no trace on google. It records stuff to do with the British Museum and the British Library, especially from the days before their legal separation in 1973 and their physical separation in the 1990s. The latest issue of their journal (“Staircase”) has some reminiscences of the great Reading Room eccentrics of yesteryear. My favourite is a Miss McDonald, an elderly lady who cycled to the BM in very short shorts every morning, on whom Peter Barber contributed this:
... One day, around Christmas time, Miss McDonald fell ill. Her G.P. was not available and so my father, another G.P. who was on the district rota, went to see her. I remember how baffled he was when he returned home. He had found Miss McDonald surrounded not only by the usual cards, but by strings of sausages. Apparently, as a result of her studies in the British Museum Reading Rooms she had come to the conclusion that the sausage was the epitome of civilisation (a belief that I think she said had something to do with the Basques). Be that as it may, her friends presented her with festive sausages to mark birthdays and Christmas. I don’t know whether she ever ate them.

and P. R. Harris this:
In 1957 she had to be rebuked by the Superintendent of the Reading Room (in which she worked for about fifty years from 1929) for occupying more than one desk, and attaching strings to the lights from which she suspended anti-Papal tracts.

(Both from Staircase 13.1 (2008))

2. I’ve noticed this odd phenomenon: quite a few people seem to have problems with the theory of evolution vis-à-vis the existence of God. They feel that both cannot be true. Now I am sure that evolution happens -- it’s just so pleasingly elegant and right. Is evolution alone enough to get us from a huge void tasting faintly of raspberries to Nectar points, or a youtube video of someone dressed as Charlie Chaplin dancing with a dog? I don’t know. The human brain is not really fitted for working out probabilities, and when you get down to it the chances of something happening which has already happened is one in one. I’m also sure that God exists, and I don’t know how he works, but I’m betting it’s in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. I am nowhere near intelligent or educated enough to spot any clash between these two things -- they’re both areas in which my ignorance is large and rather beautiful in its simplicity. Anyway, yay for Darwin, a very clever man, and one who observed things and made sense of them for other people -- the best kind of scholarship. (Though to be honest it wouldn’t surprise me if Darwin turned out to the Newton of his field, making everything beautifully clear, and at some point an Einstein comes along to confuse us all again.)

What I’ve been wondering though why is it is evolutionary biology which gets all the headlines in this regard. Why is no one’s faith ever shaken by quantum physics? Quantum physics is completely and utterly insane. Is it because it doesn’t involve anyone’s grandmother? I suppose evolution can seem a bit cruel, and people object to that, but if it wasn’t until you heard about evolution that you noticed that there is pain and suffering in the world then you’ve got a strange sort of brain. Why wasn’t the young American man earnestly sharing his mistrust of science this morning on the corner opposite Monsoon shouting “They tell us that something can be a wave and a particle at the same time!” in a voice of shock? If we’re going to play the game of using scientific theories to try to guess the character of God, then quantum physics would suggest a deity with a very strange sense of humour, possibly off his head on some substance. If you look at the world around you, maybe a spring-time scene with flowers, grass, birds and insects, sunshine and some clouds, and then imagine zooming in, you can make basic sense of it for quite a while: the trees get their moisture though capillaries, the breeze is caused by differences in air pressure, the cells in the plants have rigid walls, their DNA is made up of spirals of molecules joined by sharing electrons, and then once you get to that point it suddenly all goes completely insane. The atoms are made of vast amounts of space studded with wierd things that no one is sure exists, which behave oddly, and which anyway don’t make sense in the equations so that even less visible variants of them have to be hypothesised so that we don’t have to believe seemingly impossible things about energy and mass. It’s all totally counter-intuitive. Quantum physics has a big philosophical issue involved as well: people have argued all sorts of things which seem logically to them to follow on from evolution, e.g. that marketplaces should be unregulated and left to fight it out, that the human genepool is in need of interventionist maintenance, etc, suggesting that humans like to make sweeping generalisations from specific scientific points. Why don’t people get more involved in the implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Does the impossibility of knowing something mean that it isn’t really there? It’s not something I know much about, I’m just amazed it doesn’t bother people more.

Nonetheless I’m afraid that my copy of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You remains on my “to read” pile. One of the reasons for that is that quantum theory has hurt me, undeniably. I first encountered Schrodinger’s cat in my early teens, at about the same time that my own little dog died in a truly nasty and unexpected way, followed in quick succession by two much-loved family dogs, one of them just a puppy. I’m afraid what I took from it was that until you have observed that your pet is alive it might not be. I then extended this principle logically to all family and loved ones, especially mothers. Because when my mother went on a long car journey, or my father disappeared off to the Himalayas for a bit, I could just as easily imagine them alive and well as dead in a horrible accident, it seemed like until I had observed that one of these things was true both of them were, and Schrodinger’s cat was my justification for this. And I don’t care if that was a misinterpretation of the original thought experiment: thought experiments don’t have right or wrong answers, that’s what they’re for. Very occasionally my father phones me at work, and in the point between someone calling me to the phone and my finding out what he’s called about it still seems like the dice have been thrown into the air and I’m waiting for them to land. Last time he just wanted me to settle an argument he was having with my mother about split infinitives.

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