Friday, 28 February 2014

History of the Universe, Part II: Thinking about it

Right, this shouldn’t take long.  Because you can’t think about the absence of thought, can you; so how can you think about its origin?  And of you can’t trace its beginning, how can you map its history?  It’s like the old Irish joke: “You shouldn’t really be starting from here.”

Stanley Kubrick had an answer: a big black monolith suddenly appears amongst a bunch of hitherto thoughtless hominids; its mere presence triggers Thought – and we jump-cut 2,000,000 years.  It’s a masterly bit of myth-creation, but it begs the question.   Whoever put the monolith there must have thought about it first.

I think of thought (ha!) as boiling down to two words: ‘why’ and ‘if’.  ‘Why’ looks to the past, trying to explain, ‘if’ to the future, trying to predict: the important thing is that to be thinking, you have to be able to do it with your eyes shut.

So, the history of thought?   Well, from Kubrick’s apeman’s realisation that if he used that bone in that particular way, then this consequence would ensue; through the discovery by the likes of Socrates that you could think about the abstract as well as the particular; all the way to the boundless scope of artistic imagination and the consciousness-expanding potential of digital technology – there’s certainly been a lot of it.  (And I haven’t even mentioned ‘Deal or No Deal’.).

But I’m not sure thought itself has really changed that much.  It’s broadened its range of subject matter, obviously; but has it expanded its basic toolkit?  Has it deepened?  Did we become better thinkers over the millennia, as we civilised ourselves?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

New Words

A ditty which was going the rounds just before the outbreak of World War II, when loads of women were signing up to the ATS:

Rockabye baby, or Daddy will spank.
Mummy’s in Aldershot, driving a tank.
When the Camp’s over, Mum will return 
And oh! what a lot of new words you will learn!

I’ve been learning a lot of new words lately too, but they’re mostly medical and hence off limits.  (You don’t want to know about ‘distal interphalangeal joints', do you?)
But here’s one I hadn’t come across before which has cropped up three times in a week – once in a medical context, twice in journalism – ‘triage’.  I naturally assumed it must be trending, so I looked it up.

I’m sure my uniquely well-informed readers will be familiar with its standard meaning (something to do with applying scarce resources effectively) – but did you know it also means ‘broken coffee beans?’
Just sharing.  I promise to get heavy again by the weekend.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

History of the Universe, Part I: Myths of Creation

Myth predates history, never mind science: all Myths are equally valid.  So I may as well make up my own:

God, or somebody like him, was playing around with numbers, but had only come up with Zero and Infinity.  They were both big numbers, in their different ways, but God needed Time to make them interesting.  So he invented One.  (We call it ‘Singularity’, which is just a posh word for the same thing.)
One, Zero and Infinity’s relationship proved to be unsustainable.  One won, and exploded with joy.  (Whether God had planned it that way is now anyone’s guess.  Or indeed, whether it was in fact joy, or rage: I lean towards joy.)  One thing is certain, though – Time was born at that moment, and the Universe began.
You know the rest.  Zero and Infinity were relegated to the sidelines, not to reappear for a very long time.  One (the Singularity) and its offspring (two, three, five, eight, thirteen, elementary particles, atoms, molecules, gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets) just got on with it, for nearly fourteen billion years, until the next big invention (which may or may not have been God’s idea too) came along – Thought.
The next entry in this series will cover the history of Thought.  

Sunday, 16 February 2014


Were all pavements actually paved back in the 1950s?  Or were they tarmacked?

(Sorry, I’ve just been away for a few minutes to see if spellcheck has the spelling of ‘tarmacked’ right.  It doesn’t look right.  But it is.)

(I’ve been away for longer than that, I know; this is mainly because too much of my time over recent weeks has been about boring medical stuff, which I really don’t want to impose on you.)

My reason for asking is that I was reminded the other day of the rule that it’s unlucky to step on the cracks between the paving stones, because you’ll fall down them into hell or something.   I was taught this, aged about eight, by another boy when we were walking home from school; I can picture the moment, so that suburban side street in Bournemouth must have had slabs, not tar.

My real reason for remembering all that is my reaction.  I wasn’t a rebellious child in any overt way whatsoever; but I did like to harbour satisfying little mutinies in my head, possibly to be deployed at a later opportune moment.  (I still do that.)  So eight-year-old me decided, there and then in Watcombe Road, to step on every pavement crack I could manage.  I was reminded the other day that I still do that, I still step on the cracks. 

That led me to remember my grandmother, who had a superstition for every occasion.  I’ve googled, and she had all the usual ones – black cats, ladders, crack’d mirrors and so on – but also one or two entirely of her own.  (Quite probably of her own making.)  Because she died before I’d learnt the importance of remembering trivial detail, I can only recall one of these, but it’s worth passing on:

“If you see an ambulance, you must touch your lapel until you see a dog.”

I don’t actually obey that one anymore, but can anyone top it?  I’d hate to think I was ignorantly putting myself at risk.