Super-duper Smart People


My whole life has been a lie — and so has yours!  Unless you’re some super-duper scientist, you’ve been living under the delusion that the Earth has only one moon — conveniently called “The Moon.”  You’re wrong.  Our planet actually has two moons, and the second one is called Cruithne.  You didn’t know that, did ya?  Well, don’t feel bad ’cause neither does anyone else outside the super-duper scientist community.  But wait: there’s more!  The reason you and I and everybody else have never heard about Cruithne is another bunch of super-duper scientists thought about it for a while and called “Bullshit!”  They say that this other moon isn’t really a moon; it’s a NEO (Near Earth Object) and, apparently, there are thousands of them flying around out there.  Nerd wars!

The truth is, it doesn’t matter if the Earth has one, two or a thousand moons.  Aside from screwing up some romantic song lyrics and making the horoscope people look like idiots, what difference does it make?  Not much!  The important thing, however, is we have a crew of super-duper smart people sitting around all day, thinking about smart stuff — like whether a space rock the size of a golf course is a moon or not.

Here’s the deal: 500 years ago (1518) if you mentioned the Earth revolved around the Sun, you’d have been burned as a heretic.  (Galileo and his buddy Copernicus barely missed getting the crispy critter treatment for saying exactly that — 25 years later.)  But you don’t have to go back that far.  Less than a hundred years ago, if you told people a moldy cantaloupe could cure everything from pneumonia to blood poisoning, they’d have found a straitjacket and put you in it.  Hell, 30 years ago we only had one moon!  My point is, who knows what absolute facts will be proven wrong 500, 100 or even 30 years from now?

Ordinary people, like me, don’t know anything about microbes or moons or any of the other billions and one things scooting through our universe.  We need super-duper smart people to think about that stuff and figure it out for the rest of us.  People like Da Vinci, Newton, Madame Curie, Einstein and good old what’s-his-name who discovered Cruithne in 1986.  These are the folks who, throughout history, changed the human race from a bunch of thugs with thumbs into the dominant species on this planet.  And if it weren’t for them, we’d still be dancing around the campfire and howling at the moon — whichever one you fancy.

BTW, it’s been generally decided that 3753 Cruithne is not a moon, but for a while there, it looked like we’d all be singing “By the light of the silvery Cruithne.”

Stuff We Don’t Know

thinker-1294493_1920One of the great ironies of human existence is that, as we increase our knowledge of the world around us, we’re also discovering that — uh — we don’t actually know dick — about tons of stuff.  I’m not talking about quarks or gene sequencing or quantum physics or all that other scientific hocus pocus.  That’s for people who are interested such things, and we generally have to take their word for what works and how.  No, I’m talking about everyday occurrences.  Stuff that just happens and nobody really knows why.  Of course, there are theories, but — so far — we’re still guessing.  Personally, I think Mother Nature is just giving her smarty-pants children a smack to remind us to stay humble.  Anyway, here are three examples, and if you have another theory, feel free.  I’m always open to suggestions.

Yawning  — We yawn when we’re tired.  We yawn when we’re bored.  We yawn when other people yawn.  We yawn when we’re about to commit a felony.  (Didn’t know that, did you?)  Even animals yawn.  But nobody knows why.

Dreaming — Everybody dreams and everybody from Sigmund Freud to the guy who cuts your hair has a theory about why we spend our sleeping hours creating fiction.  Unfortunately, these are all just theories, and at last look, even Stephen Hawking doesn’t have a clue why we dream.

But, my favourite is:

Gravity — Everybody knows what gravity is until you ask somebody to explain it.  Try that, and you’re going to get a bunch of mumbo jumbo that ends up with Isaac Newton.  The problem is Newton never explained gravity; he just said it existed.  Here’s the deal.  The sun has enough gravity to keep the Earth from wandering off into space like a lost puppy.  The Earth has enough gravity to keep the Moon spinning around us.  And the Moon has enough gravity to affect the tides back here on Earth.  However, go 200 kilometres straight up from where you’re sitting, and there is no gravity — none!  Where did it go?  That’s a good question that I don’t think even Einstein ever attempted to answer.

Happy Birthday, Wikipedia!

wikiWhere does the time go?  I looked around the other day and discovered that Wikipedia was 12 years old.  I remember when it was a stumbling child.  People thought it was cute in those days: an amateur attempt at “all of us are smarter than one of us.”  Of course, real academics frowned on such antics: knowledge was their personal property, and one simply didn’t throw it around promiscuously.  However, even as their teachers scolded, tons of high school students — and more than a few undergrads — were salvaging their GPA with daring midnight raids on Wikipedia’s fact factory.  In the last decade those undergrads have grown up — and so has Wikipedia.  Today, both are shaping the society that a couple of years ago didn’t take either of them seriously.

Wikipedia is the latest attempt at gathering the world’s accumulated knowledge into one mighty force which, since knowledge is power, fears nothing.  The Egyptians tried it, a little over two millennia ago, with The Great Library at Alexandria.  It worked quite well for a couple of centuries, until one sultry night, in 48 BCE, it got in the way of Julius Caesar’s legions, and he burned it down.  Accumulated knowledge has always been at the mercy of fire and the ambitions of politicians.

From that time, despite what various apologists will tell you, it took us seventeen hundred years to try again.  In 1728, Ephraim Chambers, a printer in London, collected everything he and his friends knew to be true, and wrote it down.  The Chambers’ Cyclopaedia wasn’t the first of its kind, nor the best, but protected by the rule of British law and the guns of the newly minted Royal Navy, it not only survived, it grew.  Of course, not to be outdone by their nearest and dearest rivals, the French printed their own encyclopedia, Encyclopedie (Extremely long name) in 1751.  This, in turn, prompted the British to haul in the big boys; awiki1 couple of Scots named Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who produced the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1768.  For the next 250 years, even though there were 1,001 imitations, the Encyclopedia Britannica remained the Big Kahuna of “all ye know” in the world.  And its reputation as the “go-to” guy for “and all ye need to know” was such that the Nazis thought it worthy of incineration in the 1930s.  Had the Nazis spent more time reading books instead of burning them (thanks, Indiana Jones) the world’s knowledge may not have survived the mid 20th century.  Fortunately it did — and after World War II, Britannica (or something like it) migrated to every library and suburban school in the English-speaking world.  It was the greatest mass distribution of knowledge since Gutenberg and a serious blow to a lot of post-war know-it-alls.  Encyclopedias were everywhere, but they still weren’t necessarily everybody’s.  The world’s knowledge was still controlled by an exclusive club.

If you’re of an age, you remember the Encarta discs from the 1990s.  They made every computer in the world a fountain of knowledge, not only readily available, but portable.  Suddenly, everybody from nuclear physicists to primary school children could carry the world’s repository of information in their backpacks — and frequently did.  From there, it was only a few short digital steps to Jimmy and Larry and the final democratization of the accumulated wisdom of the world.

wiki2Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia in January, 2001. It offered the world’s knowledge to the world, without restriction or restraint.  It was information “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Twelve years later, the sum total of human experience is now available to anyone with a telephone.  Information is no longer the exclusive province of the few – jealously guarded and subject to attack.  Literally billions of people carry it with them, at school, on the bus and where they work.  It cannot be burned, stolen or hidden away.  It is the best defence against the next Adolf Hitler who comes along with a bunch of marching torches and a “better” idea.  The age of the flammable page is over.

Happy Birthday, Wikipedia!  You’ve come a long way, baby!