Too Late to be a Contended Pig -on the highs and headaches of trying to understand

I am not certain that it is always better to be a discontented human rather than a contented pig. And who’s to say if I was a pig I’d be contented, I’ve seen bearded pigs with melancholy demeanours.

I have spent the last three days trying to understand physics, I am now wondering if 72 hours is enough to comprehend why the universe is as it is, or at least, seems to be as it is. There is a splinter of me that hankers for the security of reading biographies and artists, and being able to have conversations that start, “well, the thing about Spike Milligan is…” without fearing that what I am about to say failed the process of peer review in the 1950s.

But as the particle instructor in Alan Parker’s film set in the New York Academy of Sciences famously says, “understanding scalar fields in cosmology costs and this is where you start paying…in sweat, and chalk, and equations”. Then they all ran out in to the streets of Manhattan to start colliding with taxis in an attempt to replicate ideas of wave- particle duality.

Most days are days involving confrontations with my own ignorance, though there is a dramatic increase when I am working with Brian Cox. The show we are about to start touring is largely derived from the latest book he has written with Jeff Forshaw, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos.
It explains why we believe what we believe about our universe, from weight to age to origin.
As a non-scientist reading a science book, I have to remember to slow down, pause, gulp for air, and sometimes read a passage over and over again until a small patch of understanding glows in my brain.

I look at an equation and my brain panics, the letters and numbers dislodge from the page and start swooping and decaying in the air. Then, I remember that behind the equation which may be explaining the amount of protons in the universe or the speed of expansion, exist many stories. Before the equation was an equation, someone had an idea. They may have been sat in a dinghy or perched on a mountain ledge, and they were assailed by a possibility, perhaps framed as a question or as an answer in search of the right question.

Behind the ideas that seem opaque to my simple mind, are magnificent and preposterous endeavors, the building of remarkable machines, the polishing of lenses. I gain some succour from this.

I try not to beat myself up over my shortfalls too much and just keep battering my mind. I am no marathon runner, the weight of the rhino costume is too great, so this is my endurance test.

Last night, at the Singapore National Gallery, I hosted a Q&A with Brian. When I first asked for questions, hands were slow in taking to the air. This is usual in many of these events, but I notice it even more at science events. There is a fear that your question is stupid. You don’t even have the wisdom to dare to expose your curiosity or confusion, let alone have answers. I reminded the audience that I have been asking him stupid questions for years, it’s almost a job, and in all likelihood, they were unlikely to trump me in the seemingly stupid questions. In reality, it is quite tricky to ask really stupid questions. What people mean is “my question reveals something I am ignorant about and I fear I should know”, but there is no crime in that, whether asking questions about Max Planck or Manet. It would be far more stupid to remain silent and remain ignorant.
A question such as “how can we be so sure that the Earth is not flat?” will lead to many interesting answers.

It is not satisfying to be ignorant, and the more you read the more you discover what you don’t know, so it can seem that the act of learning makes you more stupid than less, or at least aware of your further shortcomings, but once curiosity leaps out of Pandora’s Box, there is no way back, and on the way, every now and again, you experience the sense of the night sky being a bit more beautiful, picture the reasons for Orchids to have evolved as they have, and a little understanding of how you came to be standing on this planet, not falling off it.

The podcast series I record with Josie Long about books and inspirations, which includes interviews with Chris Hadfield, Stewart Lee and Sara Pascoe, is HERE

I have edited a new horror anthology with Johnny Mains, Dead Funny Encore, with stories by Alan Moore, Isy Suttie, Josie Long, Alice Lowe, Stewart Lee and lots more, it is available now.



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3 Responses to Too Late to be a Contended Pig -on the highs and headaches of trying to understand

  1. Mel says:

    Either you are up very early your time or I am up very late my time (putting off designing a poster for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — too angsty for 1am).

    Monkey Cage started my own toe-dipping into physics. I then tried Brian and Jeff’s first book, but that proved to be the too-deep end. I read and reread it, finding it weirdly soothing however hard to retain (while dreaming of clocks). Online courses have been helpful — there is a fabulous Gravity and Black Holes class with Université Paris Diderot that I highly recommend. Like your gallery audience, I hung back at the (online) discussions. I will be braver next time, and avoid the Scrivener’s words.
    You are quite correct, of course, ignorance is in the not asking — not in the not knowing. Our current political and public discourse is proof of that. Refusing to be pinned down about climate, vaccinations, or even evolution, they say, “I am no scientist.” Yet they are certainly not going to ask one.
    I will never grasp as much as I would like to, but you make the attempts human and humorous, Robin, thank you.

  2. anne corr says:

    I echo Mels sentiments, and am enjoying exploring my ignorance as ever. Also enjoy your input whenever i hear it on R4!!

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