Sunday, June 29, 2008

Absolute is Relative

I was shockingly bad at geography at school, not just for a top set student either. In tests and exams I was always positioned way below the rest of my class, which has allowed me the illustration that I am so awful at the subject that I came thirty-third in a class of thirty-two. That's probably an overly generous interpretation of my achievement, although in my defence the vast majority of what we studied was to do with reading maps and locating countries on an atlas or involved so many new terms that I just didn't get it.

The latter of these difficulties is related to the way I learned to read - something I could do when I was three years old. I followed the print as it was narrated to me and memorised it, then matched sounds to shapes of words, not to letters. Thus I have always found pronunciation and meaning without context or example virtually impossible.

I also remain pretty inept when it comes way-finding, be that reading maps, giving directions, plotting co-ordinates, or even finding my own way somewhere without any of these specialist devices that are allegedly helpful in the process of getting from A to B. Again there seems to be a bit of cognitive processing amiss, as demonstrated by the two hours it took for me to arrive at my sister's flat on a major, well sign-posted road that was only twenty minutes journeying away.

Had things been different I doubt very much I'd be a social scientist: my childhood fascination with dinosaurs endures; my interest in astronomy continues to grow; even archeology intrigues me to some degree, although I have yet to manage a whole episode of Time Team whilst awake.

Not withstanding the soporific effects of Tony Robinson, who was very good, if not over-reliant on the one-liner, as Baldrick, or the fact that most of what is discovered in Britain has something to do with The Romans, archeology may very well have been my career of choice. Being as I didn't get geography at all that didn't happen and my career path since further shows up my navigation skills for what they are.

Retrospectively, I'd have chosen astronomy, or more likely cosmology, although my utter stupidity when it comes to the natural sciences was a double whammy there. Right now I'm trying to comprehend the white hole theory of the creation of the universe, part of which led me to completing a BBC Bitesize activity on waves last night. It didn't go particularly well.

I know all this is to do with my requirement to understand everything there is to know about life, the universe and, well, everything. The problem is that the concepts really do float right over my head. I read a Wikipedia entry on white holes (they eject matter and then some other science stuff) which led me to another entry on Hawking radiation (it comes from black holes) and on to quantum mechanics (quantum is measurement, I get that bit), finally landing at Einstein's theory of relativity (no idea).

After an hour or so my head caved in and I went to bed to eat tiramisu and watch a programme about how life on earth may have arrived via comet dust. These natural science sorts are very positive, to the extent that I have more than once had to hold my own on the matter of whether social science can rightfully refer to itself as a science, being as it is not absolute, objective or concrete.

Just hold on now. Absolute? Objective? Concrete? I appreciate that there is much still to discover about the universe (universes, multiverse) and probably most scientists in this area acknowledge that their discipline is by and large theoretical in nature, for want of a better term.

So far I have managed to glean this much: the big bang theory might be right, or it might be that the universe spewed forth from the reverse side of a black hole, if the reverse side of a black hole is a white hole. Hawking radiation may leak from a black hole, although none has yet been measured. The universe may be expanding, or it may be infinite and we can't see that far.

It may be this; it might be that. At some point I fully expect some eminent professor of some scientific discipline or other to state with absolute certainty that life on earth popped up all of a sudden in a lovely garden with an apple tree. Of course, it will be called something like the Eden Event Horizon Theory and will involve subatomic anti-particles that are held together in a serpent-like shape by dark matter.

I'm up for keeping an open mind and I like theories. They give me something to think about, but to all those natural scientists out there: the next time you're giving the fields of social science or theology a dressing down, you might want to fill in the holes in your own backyard first.

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