What ARE Birds?

We just don’t know.

(Well, a good idea’s a good idea…)

So hello to all the Bloggers and all our ships at sea!

Today I wanted to talk about education. Specifically, science education.

Boy, there sure is a lot of it, isn’t there?

I mean of the pop-science bestseller and the Discovery channel special presentation type — a lot of it. And it’s all very interesting, notwithstanding some of the more “QFT hip hip!” offerings…all very interesting indeed, but it doesn’t start with the basics as much as it probably should.

So today (well…actually a week ago) I was contemplating the little matter of the four forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity, as we call them. And it struck me that of these, only “gravity” is a good and necessary and true and artful word…astronomy (you may or may not know) being the first science, it scooped up all the most poetic language for itself before the other disciplines had fairly started, and to this day it continues the tradition of artful naming: we speak of hydrogen burning in the core, the helical rising of Sirius, the first extrasolar planet to be discovered was named Osiris. Astronomy’s the most literary of the sciences, sketching vast sweeps of space and time in cool yet thrillingly dramatic language, describing processes in a way psychology only wishes it had gotten to first. So: “gravity”, or “gravitation”…while not strictly an astronomical concept, it partakes of astronomy’s brilliant naming-tactics, perhaps because gravity is the physical concept most important to astronomical endeavours…

But the names of the other three forces suck. Don’t they?

Worse than that, they don’t reveal much. Newton frankly admitted that the name “gravity” might as well be “black magic”, for all it really explained about how it works…but in this limitation there’s a certain felicitous reward for the careful thinker: the word “gravity” is essentially empirical, descriptive, and so it highlights our lack of knowledge about the processes underlying that description. What is “gravity”? Merely the principle that masses are attracted to other masses. And until Einstein, it was a principle that defied the explication of origin. It just was what it was: gravity.

A fitting word. Could’ve come from Greek mythology: “necessity”. The meaning is right there, like a smack in the eye with a snowball.

Take “electromagnetism”, though; a word that seems to explain much, but because of that seeming actually frustrates the seeking after knowledge. From “electricity” and “magnetism”, words which once described empirically and mysteriously in the manner of “gravity”, but which being turned to very practical uses acquired the aspect of thought-blockers. Electricity is something you make and buy; magnetism is something you use and sell. And “electromagnetism” isn’t so much a description of their relationship as it is an assumption of comprehension that doesn’t really exist — a portmanteau in place of a distinct meaning. How hard is it to explain to people what is and is not electromagnetism? It’s very hard: that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon seems counterintuitive to most people; that radiation is a category including both electromagnetic and non-electromagnetic phenomena seems just plain wilfully confusing on the part of the scientists who make up and apply such terms. The artless neologisms go right down to the land of constituent particles: the “electron” orbits the proton (well, not really it doesn’t, but there you go — confusion), but why is it an “electron”, instead of something else? Why do we get that “electro-” bit in there? There’s nothing particularly “electro-” about the particle, in our modern assumption of what that prefix’s derivation stands for; it’s just a particle. It just does what it does.

Why call it anything, after all?

If what you call it doesn’t describe its nature.

And the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force…these are obviously just right out, just really bad names. They’re forces associated with the atomic nucleus, fine: but what does that mean? And one is stronger than the other, okay…but so what?

So what?

We could stand to have some better names. More evocative names, and less tied to the randomness of discovery in our own history and linguistics. Newton got it right, but that was a long time ago, and we know more about gravity now than we did then.

Anyway so I thought, as I was standing in my elevator today. What would be a good way of talking about these forces, that exist for real whether we have names for them or not, that actually described what they did? Even if you couldn’t get the poetry in there, there’s got to be something better than “electroweak”…so just anything, anything will do. So, okay. As Venus Flytrap tells us, “tron” is a Swahili word meaning “do” (little joke there) — well, okay fine! “Do” is a good place to start! But what is the “doing” that these doohickeys do?

The elevator doors open, to find me offering these preliminary suggestions:

The Making force

The Changing force

The Communicating force

The Reciprocal force

And I’m still working these out, of course, still toying with them…

But what the hell, it’s a blog.

And anyway their forces may not be forces, right? “Force”, after all — like “love” — is just a word, really. And so the best we can hope for from it is that it stays in a constant relation with its real-world correlate, definitionally speaking. But, maybe that relation is slipping these days, just a little bit? What is a “force”? Very soon now, it will be a hundred years since old Albert explained what Newton couldn’t — that gravity comes to us indirectly, via the curvature of spacetime. Well, Newton could hardly have guessed at this! He was used to thinking about force

And gravity may not be one…though it undeniably has one. But mostly what gravity does is allow us to have (and participate in!) something a person could call a universe. Without gravity, no stars, no galaxies, no planets or moons or comets or asteroids or…well, really anything, apart from a lot of molecular hydrogen just zooming around. So…what’s a good name for that force?

Besides gravity, I mean…

Gravity’s the real stinker: what’s it all about, eh? Everything else folds in nice and neatly to simple concepts, but gravity’s the contextualizing force, and it may be more than that still…but like what birds are, we just don’t know. What it is. If you see what I mean. To say what gravity is, we sort of need to know what mass is, what matter is. What is matter? We just don’t know. We know what energy is, pretty much: stuff that makes stuff happen. Or not happen. Okay, maybe we don’t know what it is, but we know why we call it what we do, and that’s something anyway. Isn’t it?

The Making force, the Changing force, the Communicating force…but what’s getting Made and Changed, what’s Communicating and why? To Make is to create particle masses by playing around with them…but what are they? How do we even know they’re there? Absent their gravitational interactions, the only way is by measuring how much energy it takes to overcome their inertia…people talk about inertial mass vs. gravitational mass all the time, as you may know. However, the only thing we really know about inertia is that it’s related to isotropy, the symmetry of space and time that yields the physical constants…such knowing arriving in our heads thanks to the woman people always say doesn’t exist, the elusive Genius Female Physicist herself, Emily Noether.

A suggestive name, considering how deeply Einstein’s Relativity is indebted to her work…

But then if you follow that relationship of influence around a little bit, you might stop at some point and say “now waitasecond…except for the gravitational effects, how is this gravity stuff any different from inertia, damn it?”

To which I would reply: well, it keeps the universe being a universe, doesn’t it? So that’s something, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Well, we just don’t know.

Snow falls in Vancouver, like a million tiny little white elevators; straight from outta the neverending sky. Covering the cars with all that feathery cold stuff. Little constellations of frozen water, wheeling soundlessly through the black void.

Jesus, don’t get me started on water, though…

Or we’ll be here all night.

And damn it I’ve got presents to wrap, before I go to bed.

All that paper I’ve got to get off that roll…

See you tomorrow, Bloggers!


18 responses to “What ARE Birds?

  1. This is awesome!

    I’m quite an easy mark for the pop-science crowd, but I do find myself wishing for a little more poetry sometimes, if only because that’s what makes concepts stick to my brain…

    It’s a selfish impulse, but… did I mention that this was excellent? Wish I had more to contribute, but… yeah, I’m not feeling particularly bright today, so I’ll just have to settle with being the world’s weirdest cheerleader for now.

  2. The elevator doors open, to find me offering these preliminary suggestions:

    The Making force

    The Changing force

    The Communicating force

    The Reciprocal force

    And I’m still working these out, of course, still toying with them…

    And it’s obvious what you’re eventually going to come up with (in no particular order):

    The Reed force

    The Sue force

    The Ben force

    The Johnny force

    I haven’t done all the work, but I guarantee you that there is a way in which those names make all the sense in the world.

    You ever hear the joke about the proton, the electron and the neutron who go to a bar?

    This proton, electron, and neutron go to a bar. There’s a sign outside that says, “$10 cover”. The electron says, “We don’t have enough to get in. There are three of us and we only have $20.”

    The proton says, “There’s no charge for the neutron.”

    The electron says, “Are you sure?”

    “I’m positive.”

  3. Also, the Venus Flytrap reference was much appreciated, if only because that’s the level at which I can grasp these things. But I always did identify with Johnny…

  4. Yes, Matthew, look: there’s something rather interesting going on over this railing…um, you sort of have to lean out a bit…

    A very puzzling idea, by which I mean I’ve been idly puzzling it all day…which one’s which? If we went by FF #1, Reed’s head is pounding, Johnny feels like he’s burning up, Ben’s limbs are too heavy to lift…what’s Sue complaining about?

    Or, is it her head that’s pounding?

    You know, I think I may have something, that obeys a classic principle of…oh gee, now there really is no word for this, I’ve tried to articulate it many times and failed, but think of it as a power-law (heh) thing…stuff originated in one place or out of one element, thrives elsewhere/in another. It’s what’s wrong with SimEarth! You don’t throw oxygen at a planet to get it to have an oxygenated atmosphere, what you want is an atmosphere that’s mostly hydrogen, and then you wait for natural processes to transform it. Otherwise you can’t get it.


    The major food crops of the human race are all now produced mainly in places they weren’t first found, and wouldn’t grow in their old spots now if you paid them.


    Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben are all formed in the expression of forces acting on them, but those will not be the forces that, once formed, they will represent.

    …By golly, I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day. You could whip something up from that!

  5. Also…yeah, Howard Hesseman’s got to be pleased, hasn’t he? Inspired a whole weird half-generation of people, and had a marvellous all-round career on top of it.

    I must lay my hands on a DVD burner for a friend of mine, he has all the WKRPs on videotape, and all of Frank’s Place as well…

  6. And, David, much appreciated! I don’t know why I wrote it, I suppose I just like pointing people down a garden path. Of course no one ever goes down, but still. How many times have I tried to tell little kids at the beach that water is our model for light? They always look at me like I’m old and weird. Anyway, yeah: if you want found poetry, astronomy’s the discipline to study, for sure. The helium flash…the galactic halo…the event horizon…pair production…timelike infinity…

    Wrote a song called “Helium Flash” once, and a friend of mine asked to hear it, so I sang it to her in a bar…people came swarming up: “did she say yes?”


    “You were just proposing to that girl, right?”

    They seemed disappointed to hear I wasn’t.

    In fact, come to think of it…

    Oh my God, I’m an idiot!

  7. I too am an easy mark for pop-sci stuff, and especially as I’m feeling proud and outrageously flattered in equal measure to see you refer to astronomy as the most poetic of the sciences, as if I somehow can take credit for this just because I have been reading books about it since I was in kindergarten (my teacher discouraged me from them, thinking they’d be too hard, so I had to sneak them out of the school library when she wasn’t looking), just because astronomy is my first love.

    It seems complimentary too because astronomy is not my greatest love now; I got bogged down in the math and it was replaced in my affections by linguistics, which has very little math but still the same sharp tang of something true and useful. And while I noticed astronomy’s no-nonsense nomenclature (like the Very Large Array) but paid too little attention to the wonders of galactic halo and event horizon

    Like language as a whole, scientific language benefits and suffers from carrying around its history inside it. I’ve heard CHinese characters called “fossilized poems” and I think a lot of our words contain their own fossils, their dusty histories. Those who know the stories of how they got that way can learn a lot from the etymology of the words we use to name the things around us, and this is never more true than in the sciences, where phenomena are named very consciously, even if it’s only “well it seemed like a good idea at the time,” which I suppose is the best you could say about the names of the four forces (which, when they were named, were not even known to be the four fundamental forces… at least not the first two). The stories hidden in these words might be great for the likes of me but unfortunately it only adds to the intimidating learning curve of the sciences… but such a complete overhaul of scientific nomenclature seems even more intimidating. Easier to cut ourselves to fit the cloth of the system, I guess.

    But never mind. I’m the sort of girl who’d probably say yes if someone sang me a song about the helium flash, so what do I know?

  8. Interesting, Holly: I liked my linguistics classes (though I never went on in them) I think in part because they weren’t just interesting and useful, but because the kind of language they used was simply beyond poetic — it was like high fantasy, or something. “The Great Fricative Shift”, and all that. But then that makes a lot of sense, because the book that permanently blew my mind as a kid was The Hobbit…and Tolkien being a philologist, of course that stuff was all in there somewhere, wasn’t it? Not to mention that what attracts kids so powerfully to The Hobbit is I think a sense of much greater utility of concept, than offered by your average children’s fantasy story. That “sharp tang” of the true and useful isn’t just attractive to adults, of course — and children love new competencies much more than they love false competencies, even if they can’t always perfectly articulate the difference between them. Anyway, that’s how it all added up, for me: Tolkien’s fiction was thoroughly encoded with his discipline. Wagner Does Linguistics. Strange, potent stuff.

    I was actually going to call this post “Nomenclature, Knowledge, And Notation”, but it got too big for its britches — still, I think the current problems of science (particularly in physics) that I see, are all about the classic problems of nomenclature, except they are rarely met head-on because none of the physicists know that there’s a word for this. To reconstruct everything, to say as Feyman’s father did when young Feynman asked him why the baseball rolls backward in the little red wagon: “nobody knows…but the principle is called ‘inertia'”…this really is what we all must do anyway, because of course we’re the cloth and it’s us, and to cut one is to cut the other. Etymology is precisely the thing we need, in an age when people think names just fall out of the sky like facts. As a matter of fact, I know a lot of people who don’t believe that their own names mean anything — this is surely a bad thing in itself, but if it’s a sign of the times it may be even worse than that.

    The “fossilized poems”…a beautiful idea. And a good place to start. Me, I’m a big HPS guy (History and Philosophy of Science) because I think it’s rapidly becoming an essential arrow in science’s quiver…or, not an arrow perhaps, so much as the bowstring. If we could have HPS be a more central requirement for science education, we’d be halfway to understanding our “fossilized poems”, and our science would probably be a lot better. This is what pop-sci books and programs are really lacking more than anything: as primers for “what’s going on now” they’re perfectly okay, but they’re so unhistorical that they’re probably more effective at reinforcing received wisdom about scientistic narratives, than they are at keeping people up to date. Take Copernicus, for example: everybody’s seen the little sketch of the heliocentric solar system, but few are given the opportunity to understand that that was the output of his research, not “how he figured it out”! And maybe I’m picky, but this presentation of Copernicus’ work is just so lacking in specificity that it seems to me it might as well be a children’s Bible story, for all it encourages an engagement with science.

    And just further to the matter of names and namings: one thing I think is really lacking is some kind of canonical (or at least catholic) reference work for the etymology of personal names — for me to look up my brother Stuart’s name in fifty different places, and find “bailiff”, “warden” — everything but “steward”! — makes me long for an OED of just this stuff, to start people off with. Hmm, actually I’ve often thought online encyclopedias should all have the dictionary as their “front page” — James Burke’s probably never-to-be-completed “Knowledge Web” is a great idea, but it’s got no entry-screen: noplace for the hyperlinking to begin. Really, what dictionaries are good for! So why not use ’em?

    Sorry, rambling…

    Anyway, oh yeah, holy crap, now that I think about it…what a pickle for me if the girl had said yes! “Uh…what?” “I said ‘yes, I’ll marry you!” “Uhh…I, um…”

    And the people in the bar all clapping and cheering.

  9. I must be the least-consistent blog-commenter in the world! After taking days to properly read this post (I kept coming back to it partly because I like Look Around You so much, so I for one am glad you kept the title you did!) thanks to holidays and transatlantic travel, and a couple more days to comment and read your reply, I then found myself incapable of stringing together a coherent sentence again due to a lethal one-two punch of migraine and work.

    Enough of that, or I’ll turn into Andrew, who’s always apologizing and making excuses for why he doesn’t write more, isn’t he? (Oh, that’s how I found your blog, in case you’re wondering; I’m Sci-Ence Justice Leak’s wife. Yours is the only one of his comic-community blogs that I read myself.)

    Speaking of, one of my proudest moments as A Person Who Understands the Value of Etymology was when I won an argument with him about the meaning of a Latin word. He’s the one who’s actually taken Latin, in his posh grammar school; what little I know I’ve learned through brute force and autodidacticism. He told me calculus meant “stone” but I was sure it meant “pebble”, and eventually he realized there’s some diminutive-marker or something in the word, whereas I just knew it because I remember learning it.

    I didn’t make it very far in calculus — despite learning all the derivatives of trig functions in about an hour and a half, I probably didn’t remember them an hour and a half later — but I like to think it was some small consolation to think of Isaac Newton, about the age I was then, pushing some pebbles around. I’d like to think it could be that simple…

    Oh yes, how great a name is The Great Fricative Shift? Even when people are supposed to be paying attention to words, in classes where you learn things like that, I still seemed to be the only one relishing things like that (it made me think of some hugs mass migration, like the dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring part of Fantasia, or something)… but then most of the other people taking that class got their undergrad degrees long ago, and I’ve just restarted mine; oh well, never mind.

    I love that, “no one knows what it is, but we call it inertia…” Such an important distinction (the map is not the territory, I guess) but so many people, me almost certainly included, would’ve just said, “That’s inertia!” and sat back smugly thinking our work there was done. Science shouldn’t work this way; the power of names is supposed to be reserved for calling up demons, isn’t it?

    Or calling people, for that matter. Do people really think their names don’t mean anything? I suppose, being perennially teased about mine this time of year (it’s amazing I still like “The Holly and the Ivy” at all really… testament to what a good tune it is, though it probably doesn’t hurt that it reminds me of the pagan importance of my first name, to counteract the Christian origins of my middle and last names), I am uniquely poised to believe that of course names mean something.

    I took a philosophy of science class in college; my textbook started “Most philosophy of science books concentrate mainly on physics…” Excellent! I thought. My favorite! “… but,” it continued, “this one’s all about immunology!” So I had a terrible time understanding the philosophy when I couldn’t understand the science (despite the efforts of the venerable PZ Myers, biology’s still my weakest point), and I was sorely disappointed because I too felt there’s something missing in the version of events we are handed in the pop-sci books and TV shows. I guess I’m just a big believer in the importance of context. It’s why I talk too much — I think everything’s connected to everything, and I really want everyone to understand this… I promise to tell the story, the whole story, and not the Just-So Story.

    I had to write an onomastics paper in college but can’t remember the reference books we used to look up the names, though I oculd find them for you in the library and tell you that I think they were dark blue. :) They seemed to have the weight — literal if not metaphorical — of the OED but I can’t for the life of me tell you what they were called…

    Anyway, enough out of me now, and Happy New Year to you, even though you wrote this on Christmas, and that must be an epoch or two in Internet time.

  10. David Allison is actually way worse than Andrew when it comes to needless apologies…and he has just as little to apologize for…

    Holly! I just came back from my New Year’s Eve party, and happened to check the blog…what a wonderful reply! What a wonderful compliment! I shall try to write a bit less about Spider-Man and a bit more about Heraclitus in future…

    And I’ll come back to this tomorrow when I’m not so much in the bag, but I’ll just tell you this for now: if I was running an HPS class, in amongst the Kuhn and the Feyerabend I’d stick “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and probably “Watchmen” as well. Just for kicks: and because the literature of HPS makes a much bigger circle than theory…it goes into real life too.

    “Onomastics”, of course…I swear the older my brain gets the more it turns into a lump of booze-sozzled chalk. I knew that word, that’s *my* word…still I’m going to have to ask you to use your linguistics contacts to find me those blue books!

    Complete reply follows after I finish hitting my bed like a ton of damp clay. Tell Andrew I think he’s a lucky man — any spouse who likes my blog is a rare bird indeed. I mean sometimes even I don’t have the patience to read what’s written here, even I sometimes wonder what I’m trying to prove by writing it…if I were my own spouse I’m sure I would shun the thing.

    Happy New Year to you too. More momentarily.

    (ps. I don’t understand the political discussions Andrew gets into…to me all the folks he talks to seem mainly interested in trying to scale the ivory tower, as though there were some ideological Rapunzel at the top. “Libertarian liberals”…I may have to write a post on the absurdity of that, that freakin’ well is “nomenclature”…)

    (pps. okay, must lie down now…)

  11. I should’ve thought that even though I’m long since done with work for the day (yes, work; I’m a nursing assistant and apparently hospitals don’t have holidays), people could still be just returning from their New Year’s Eve parties.

    I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh, then, thinking of unleashing all that on someone just home from reveling. Heh.

    Yes, I do know about time zones. I’m from that North America place myself — when Andrew whines about having to travel to the US for Christmas, that’s my doing — but still one does forget the implications of these things from time to time.

    You seem to have a good thing going with the Spider-Man stuff; don’t go changing on my account. Besides, though I’m only enough of a comics person to fake it at parties (as if I went to parties, though if I did they’d probably be full of people who’d see right through such fakery), that’s at least enough for me to often not be entirely averse to the Spider-Man type stuff… I may be ignorant (I usually am), but that’s not quite the same as averse.

    The only reason I’m not disappointed that you aren’t teaching that HPS course is that if you were I wouldn’t be able to take it, being way over here, and that would make me die of jealousy. It sounds fantastic. (Though maybe that’s just because it’s rare that I’d have already read any course materials for such a thing, and I have read those two books you name!)

    I was already thinking of e-mailing my old Grammar&Language professor, to see what those books would be. :) And this despite the atrocity I made of myself in her Old English class the next year (my senior year, thus that being the abiding impression of myself I’d have left her with… she probably has no idea what a nut she’s made me for OE, though; just yesterday I once again screamed at the TV, yet another clever-sounding BBC presenter calling him “Æthelred the Unready” when he’s Æthelred the Unraed, which I was taught means something like “unlearned” or “ill-advised”; just because you think it looks or sounds like “unready” doesn’t mean it…

    What was I saying? Oh yeah, I’ll see what I can do about the books, though for all I know they may be one of those that already told you your brother’s name means “bailiff” or something; I’ve no reason to think they aren’t; I beseech thee not to get your hopes up too much on my account.

    I shall relay the message to Andrew (though I hate to; knowing that I’ve been commenting on your blog will make him go back and read all this nonsense I’ve told you and then laugh and tell me I’m great and the worst part is he’ll mean it, even though it really is just nonsense). The part about shunning yourself as your own spouse made me laugh. I know what you mean though; I don’t even have a “real” blog like this but what I do have is what Andrew fervently insists is what made him fall for me, and how does that work? I can’t stand to read it myself either.

    Don’t worry about not understanding the political stuff Andrew gets into. I don’t understand it myself. I mean, I am usually newspaper-readingly savvy enough to understand the words, but why he wants to spend his time talking about it I’ll never know. I’m sure we’re not missing much.

    Oh man, now I really can’t tell him I’ve been commenting here!

    Ideological Rapunzel, though! Yes please!

    I hope you had a good sleep. I look forward to one soon myself! Damn time zones.

  12. Kind of you, Holly…but I kind of knew it wasn’t going to last. It was too sloppy, and sloppy + personal’s a bad mixture.

    It may return one day, in a more trim form. After all, found poetry ought never to be wasted. But, that bit of mine did waste it, a little. Next time will be better!

    As to Andrew’s political intelocutors, I understand them just fine, I just don’t understand how they can maintain what I take to be their extreme theoretical distance from life-as-lived…not to mention it seeming a holdover from the political hypothesizing of the early Eighties (though these hypotheses had already been tested quite thoroughly enough before then too, as far as I can see — so where was the burning need to test ’em again?), it also seems to me a little bit of clinging to the old mechanical paradigm: things have independent qualities rather than interdependent relationships, and so all can be understood by ideological arithmetic, and calculus is not necessary.

    Of course the most common and most damaging mistakes in mathematics are always the purely arithmetical ones, right? That’s what crashes satellites and causes overdoses, and missed dinner dates…none of that is the fault of calculus

    Nice stuff in here for me to know: “pebbles”, I had no idea, how marvellous, it lends extra texture to Newton’s comment about the great ocean of truth lying undiscovered all around him, don’t you think? AEthelred the Unread-y, also: wow! Duh. In a way it is not unlike the Spider-Man stuff: there are no accidental parts of culture anymore than there are any vegetable crops cultivated solely for the purpose of garnishing a plate. Even celery is good for you, and may indeed be very good for you…it’s just that we have no scientific evidence of that as yet. But I tend to trust our older folkways, as far as the value of celery goes…we must’ve had some reason for domesticating that crop, mustn’t we?

    Similarly, Spider-Man: there is something lurking under our noses, there. If nothing else, the superhero’s a multivalent literary character, whose multivalence reaches out to grab us by the throat — why the hell are we so interested in it? It cannot be because we’re all just incredibly stupid. Comics as a medium needs no defence, it’s just another kind of art…but that superhero stuff needs some understanding, for sure. Basically I consider it therapeutic in nature, as I consider all escapist fiction therapeutic, because it trades on the psychological dynamism of the human mind that’s probably best characterized by the word “mythological”…Jack Kirby and Stan Lee used to say they were creating “modern myths”, and the way they said it sure seemed like they were trying to steal the fire of literature to ennoble the crappy commercial place from whence they drew their paycheques…! But technically, I believe the claim is accurate enough; it’s only the idea that “mythology” is some Grand Exalted Thing, which is wrongheaded. Surely it’s as basically common as pebbles on the beach, eh? So screw diamonds; let’s not have diamonds, we can’t really expect to be living in a field of diamonds…when meaning lies in the field of pebbles instead. If it were so glorious as diamonds, it would be as rare as diamonds, and it isn’t rare, but it’s all around us, n’est-ce pas?

    HPS again, I’m afraid.

    So, I grew up reading all these incredibly lurid fantasies of identity-displacement, and I’ll be hornswoggled if their graphical artistries didn’t tweak my developing sense of Self…still, I myself often seem to claim the stuff is “special”, somehow diamond-like, and of course that’s wrongheaded too. But at this moment in time, the post-postmodern moment, maybe I feel my assertions are forgivable. It wasn’t too long ago that the medium of comics was looked down upon, in many places throughout the English-speaking world…and today that would mostly be a crazy notion to entertain, but Popeye used to be for the proles, you know, and the only reason it now isn’t, perhaps it is evidence of social levelling or something I don’t know, is because some people stood up and asserted the hell out of its equal cultural value. Of course the superheroes are a much harder nut to crack, because as I believe I’ve said around here a bit the last little while, for some of the people making their living out of that particular paintbox these days the giving-a-shitness seems to be inversely proportional to the can-make-a-decent-dollar-at-itness. All art has its periods, is what I guess I’m saying: and this is one too, and in many ways it’s a brilliantly-sparkling one, but in many other ways it’s a hell of a rough and dark and dingy one. And that part of it’s just got to be temporary, that’s all. It must just come from a temporary confusion about (ah! onomasty!) what the origins really are, what the processes really are, what the relationships really are. What the meanings really are. I do think people get lazy with that stuff, and think they can stop thinking, and so they get it wrong.

    “The Great Fricative Shift”: yeah, you can conjure with that name, for sure. However it ought to be just as possible to conjure with the meanings of personal names…now, here’s a question for you, Holly, based on my own observation that people are in general much more likely to believe their zodiacal sign means something, than that their name means something, sample these people how you like off of the continuum of skepticism/belief…I know, it’s chilling, but I’m telling you I’ve conducted the research…

    The question: why might some people resist the idea, with extra-special force, that their name might mean more than just the sound of a chime in the wind? I don’t even think you can say it’s because they conceptualize the world of science as distinct from the world of magic…after all, if magic’s built on anything it’s built on names. Take away the magic of names and all romance collapses, I think…and I think people get that…



    Sorry, I guess it’s a bit of a rhetorical question. Hey, can you tell a friend of mine came over tonight with a sack of beer and some Venture Bros. episodes? Because I sure can…

    But in any case…hey, this is starting to be a sort of fun conversation, isn’t it? The Internet gives, yea it gives with both hands…

    Okay, once again: crashing out!

  13. As soon as I got home last night Andrew told me I had to read your most recent post because it mentions me. And I saw it (I couldn’t read all of it because I was too tired) and said “Aw,” but what really tickled me is that this morning I followed the link to your comment-conversation with Andrew, where when I scrolled down I saw you said I’d popped over and said nice things about you and that you ere out to change my mind.

    Too bad, you haven’t. I’m still here. I didn’t quite think of what I was doing as saying nice things about you, but I should have as it is so obviously what I am doing. My attempts to talk about science and language only mark me out as the hopeless amateur I am; the only reliable content here is that I like your blog and I am enjoying the hell out of this little conversation, which are nice things if I ever saw ’em.

    I envy you your restraint; sloppy and personal is indeed a deadly combination but it’s one that makes up so much of my own “blog” that my name is never linked when I leave comments here. :)

    Fun fact about “calculus,” then: it’s also the name for calcium (which must be a related word, come to think of it…) deposits in the urinary tract. I hear kidney stones are excruciatingly painful; I wish I hadn’t found calculus to be so as well.

    “Æthelred” means “well-advised,” too, so calling him “Æthelred the theunraed” negates his name. no need to tell them names have meaning!

    That thing about the power of names v. the power of astrology, if power is democratically decided, really is chilling… Bad enough that people ask me what my sign is when I tell them I’ve always liked astronomy…

    I got to talk about you last night — quite obliquely, don’t worry, but I went over to a new friend’s and we ended up talking about the arbitrariness of time in such a way that we wondered where the words like “day” and “week” come from, and he consulted his handy Concise OED, there at his feet while he sat on the sofa, but it raised more etymological questions than it answered. I talked about why I’d recently been thinking about the importance of names and words and stuff anyway. It was good. A crazy conversation and without even a sack of beer to blame it on; I had nothing more than two cups of tea when I was there!

    Thanks again for making me a little part of your little corner of the internet. I do hope the found poetry that finds you returns again some way or another…

  14. It actually returned already, Holly: it’s in that post! Only the beautiful title’s missing. You are not mentioned by accident, naturally…I’ve abjured sloppiness, remember? And by the way, all those links in there: they’re for you. To the extent I have regular readers, none of them are going to bother clicking on a link labelled “light-cone”, they’re only going to roll their eyes and mutter, “Jesus, enough with the neverending light-cone shit already…!”

    Oh, and a “hopeless amateur” is a contradiction in terms.

    Oh, and “calculus” is also the stuff on your teeth that the dentist scrapes off when you go for a checkup. True fact!

    And, oh! Thanks for making me a little part of your corner of the Internet, after all there are many ways to spend one’s day…

    And oh, Christ! “AEthelred” means “well-advised”. Well of course it does, these people had little but wit to keep them warm on cold winter nights, I reckon…heh, AEthelred The Unraedy…PUN! Or, nearly a pun…?

    As to obliquely mentioning me, ha ha, that saves you more than me, imagine if you’d said “well yes, I was conversing with this guy on the Internet in Canada who apparently wears a straw hat and sometimes works on boats, and he said…

    But, lo.

    Words like “week”, eh?

    So here’s the thing…

    What about etymology?

    I mean…is it trustworthy?

    History’s not trustworthy, you see; it has to be supplemented with Antiques Roadshow to gain concreteness, and even then it’s all up for grabs. And who was Einstein’s next-door neighbour when he was a kid? And did Picasso leave his hat on a hook at his school so that when somebody asked where Picasso was the answer came back “well, his hat’s here, he must be somewhere around…”? The epistemologists among us would say that history is a non-natural property of events, and boy is it easy to prove them right…most of the interesting things about our own lives will go down under the water, because there is no way that you can tell everyone everything…and indeed (light-cone) there will be no way to tell what old fact is interesting to future generations, until they find it interesting. And they may not.

    I often wonder about Ask and Embla, the first humans created in Norse mythology. There seems to be little credence given to the idea that “Embla” means “emblem”…and yet is this so far from never being able to find that the name “Stuart” means “steward”? When the fact is, in Europe the families (expressions, cultural forms) that have died out seem often easier to find than those that haven’t died out…because the ones that haven’t are in fact all around you, invisible because ubiquitous. Ancient Pan-Teutonic Culture! Is it so impossible to consider that it still exists, and that we’re part of it? Hmm, that’s the problem with dictionaries, the inclined planes of the mind…anybody can make one. Ever wonder why American spellings are different from English ones? Because Noah Webster was a patriot, he was foursquare for the Revolution…and his obsession was for there to be an American language.

    Dumb, right?

    And yet in a way, we are all Noah Websters. Discounting bits of history, because they don’t fit the other bits of history we like better. Remind me to tell you, next exchange, about the wreck of the HMS Hanover. OR! Look it up, and tell me what you conclude. Because I was down in St. Agnes when they discovered the damn thing, and I know something sort of weird about it, which I think is rather enlightening…

    Though not necessarily important, which is why I don’t tell you what it is right away. Not for me the nightly news strategy of “coming up after the break, the common snack you should stop eating NOW or it will kill you…but first here’s Jim with the weather.”

    Oh crap, look at all that gobbledegook. Talk about a sack of beer, I had one. I think maybe I had a couple.

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