a guest blog from Elen Sentier
As someone who is married to a scientist who used to work at the Rutherford-Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, and is the daughter of an engineer I find the “arts-type” view of “facts” amusing and somewhat disquieting.
What is a fact?
How many real facts can you list – I’m not absolutely certain I can think of one!
Scientists work with hypotheses, that’s Greek for damn good guess that has been shown to fail yet. Well actually perhaps, that it only fails in certain cases which we know very little about yet such as relativity/quantum. And anyway, we have observed that light is both particles and waves – which seems to most ordinary mortals to be a pair of diametrically opposite things and therefore impossible. Yes … well … umm … growing up in a household where this kind of thing was normal breakfast conversation makes a difference to how you look at the academic Arts mind. And then marrying someone who was involved in experiments where the boss PhDs concluded that the only way to explain the experiment was a particle going backwards in time … I dare say you’re getting the idea *grin*.
Science and engineering work on the principles of observation – not on the priciples of footnotes and what people have said in the past.
I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Professor Eric Laithwaite (who invented the linear motor and explored the spin-energy of planets as an energy source we humans might use). He began one lecture at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London as follows …
‘I likes taking to school children. I don’t like the teachers, I like the children. Very often I begins by dropping me keys from one hand to another [he demonstrated]. Sooner or later some little tyke at the back says, “Hey, mister, what you’m droppin’ them keys for?” to which I reply, “I’m always hoping they’ll go ooop!”…’
And all this in his glorious Lancashire accent *smile*.
Laithwaite finished the lecture by putting up a cartoon; it showed a learner driver, a young woman, sat in a car beside a young man who was the instructor. It was a wee bit odd because the car was bowling along above the road at tree height! Laithwaite has the instructor saying to the young woman, “Now then Mrs Postlethwaite, don’t you worry none, but when we gets back to the ground just try and remember exactly what it was you did!”
It’s well worth looking here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Laithwaite – see more of what he did, he was a wizard, a real magic man … and he was a scientist.
What has all this to do with Robert Graves? For me, and for my dad who introduced me to Graves, and my husband who walks between the worlds of Boolean algebra and Graves as breakfast conversation, the point is about the tyranny of so-called “facts”. It is so, so easy to climb into the box of accepted wisdom and so many scholars do precisely that. Footnotes and end-notes and scholarly tomes were written by people, including Graves. People have their own axes to grind and their own additions, adaptations, and enhancements to make; many of them write from a political background – most of the Roman writers for instance. And, all history is written by the winners!
I used to be a senior project manager building computer systems for the MOD, back in the day some 25 years ago! It was fun, then, and we all had wonderfully cynical perspectives and sharp humour. We had a couple of perennial jokes that exactly illustrate my feelings for footnotes and tomes. The first is …
The battle commander needs to send a message. He tells his adjutant, ‘Send this message: send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.’ The adjutant passes it down to the lieutenant who passes it to the sergeant major, who passes it to the sergeant, who passes it to the corporal, who passes it to the squaddie who is the Sigs Op of the night. The Sigs Op sends the following message, ‘Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance’ …
My point … things that have been written down ages ago and then translated many times from the original language can end up as Chinese whispers and very likely do. Add in that everyone has their own opinion of what the ancient writer means … As Clint Eastwood says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, ‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one!’
Our other perennial joke is …
Definition of an expert – an “ex” is a has-been, a “spurt” is a drip under pressure!
Yeah … well … LOL and who hasn’t felt that then? My point is that it is only to easy to feel oneself to be an expert, especially if you have alphabet soup after your name (and yes, I do too! I just never mention it!). And it is only to easy to act like a drip under pressure if you feel your academic standing is threatened!
Graves went round breaking rules and threatening everyone with his ideas and insights. That was right up my anarchical parents’ street and my hubby too and, of course, myself. I really learn things well when I observe, not when I try to learn from books. That always feels like learning someone else’s script to me and I’m really useless at living in someone else’s way … actually (with my psychotherapist hat on) so are most people. We do conform because if we don’t we find ourselves out of a job, with no money for rent or food or heating, and quite possibly out of friends too as we’re not doing what they think we should. Question … are such folk really friends?
So, back to Graves … he not only climbed out of the box he largely ripped it to shreds and turned the remains on its head and then set fire to it. For some of us a phoenix rose out of those ashes. For others he is anathema. And some ditz between the two *smile*.The scientific perspective will be that nothing is proven, ever, everything is always changing and growing and evolving, there are no tomes, no stone tablets, that cannot be broken. That feels like life to me; life is always changing and growing and evolving, it’s never the same from one moment to another … and I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded now of the Incredible String Band and their song “This Moment” … “this moment is different from any before it, this moment is different, it is now”. I think many folks forget this, quite possibly find it very scary and unsettling, they want a “stable base” from which to be. But we live on the third rock from the sun that’s hurtling through space like a ball on the end of a string at some 67,000 mph! Yikes! The Earth herself is spinning on her axis at about 1000 mph – double yikes! And we think we’re staying still ??? Umm …
I’ve always found Graves to be like contemplating all that, all those impossible things that are utterly real, like light being particles and waves, like we’re spinning at 1000 mph and flying through space at 67,000 mph, like wouldn’t it be fun if when I drop my keys they go up and gravity works backwards? Yay, all scary stuff … but wow is it exciting *big grin*.