Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

ADVENTURING WITH A PEN

April 27, 2022

I love writing — spending several hours a day in solitude with pen and paper because it can be the most enchanting activity imaginable. But why is it so? Daniel Boorstin the historian admitted “I write in order to find out what I think.” Writing is a form of exploration which can take one on the most exciting journeys to meet unforgettable characters you never knew existed, until you encounter them emerging, like ink, from your pen. In some magic sense they must have been inside you all along, hiding just out of sight, waiting their chance to have their say and become part of your family. Many storytellers will attest to that. I will never forget finishing my first novel in rather dramatic circumstances. I was camping utterly alone on The Bay of Fires in remote Tasmania. I had taken my stool and writing table to the edge of the surf to commune with Griff, with Salome, with Elephant and Naomi — my main characters, and my only companions at the time, seeing that my flesh and blood family were still busy back in Britain. I uncapped my pen, looked out across the turquoise sea towards the rising sun and let my characters write the end of their story — which had very little to do with me. Three hours later they were done. They had finished with me, rising up into the sky and vanishing back from wherever they had come. I burst into tears, abandoned, desolate, like a tiny child dumped without warning at boarding school.

That was 20 years ago but I have been writing novels ever since as more and more characters come down to join me and my pen on any number of vivid adventures. To my regret I have never had a flesh and blood daughter : no problem; Petrel came down in “Crouching Giant” and she’s been with me ever since, while my fictional step-father Bob Salt badgered, inspired and entertained me every day throughout the 4-volume saga “Written in the Stars”, claiming to have written much of it himself.

But explorers, as I claim to be, ought to make discoveries. But how could one possibly make discoveries with just a pen? That turns out to be a very profound question linked to an even greater mystery — why can we humans think so much more successfully than our primate cousins in the wild who share 98 % of our genes? Natural Evolution is a painfully slow process whereas we have transformed from Cave Man to Space Man in a mere few thousand years. It cannot be biology — it has to be technology — which kicked in not much more than 3000 years ago. And I’m pretty sure of the answer now.

3800 years ago in the Sinai desert not far from Phoenicia , some turquoise -miners invented the ‘phonetic-alphabet’ which could translate language, any language, into written words. It was such a valuable trick that it spread from Asia Minor across the Mediterranean to Greece, Rome and far beyond, literally transforming everything — but why and how? Here comes another private adventure — even further afield than the Bay of Fires. For my living I was an astronomer obsessed with ‘Hidden Galaxies’. The figure below shows a montage of galaxies — colossal islands of stars in Space. They are the basic units of the Cosmos — and we live in in one such spinning island ourselves — The Milky way.

As you can see some are bright whilst others are so dim as to be virtually invisible. Back in 1975 I collected some pretty convincing evidence suggesting that the Cosmos was probably packed with with completely invisible, that is to say ‘Hidden Galaxies’ (‘HG’s). If that sounds implausible you must remember that, because we live right next to a bright star called the Sun, even the darkest sites on Earth are still 5,000 times brighter than they would be from a typical point of cosmic Space. My suggestion sparked off several large-scale campaigns to either find, or rule out this hypothetical “Hidden Universe”. Strong pieces of evidence both for and against the proposition turned up — but conflicted. That led to furious debates within the profession. To reconcile the two sides I decided to consult “The Scientific Method”, the underlying philosophy to which all of us scientists subscribe. Easier said than done. The harder I looked for the Scientific Method the faster it danced away. Almost none of the people who wrote about it endlessly were scientists themselves, but philosophers or statisticians, while we scientists were suspiciously mum about the whole topic. Einstein had said that: β€œScience is no more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” but admitted: β€œThe physicist cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem (than physics), the problem of analysing the nature of everyday thinking.”

It eventually dawned on me that no one on Earth qualified to know had any idea what the Scientific Method was or is, or whether it existed at all. So, when I retired I decided to track down dozens of historical scientific discoveries to find out how exactly they had been made. They clearly revealed that Common Sense Thinking (CST) was at its core, and that implied weighing different clues against one another and against the hypothesis under debate. Now here comes the point: to do that effectively and reliably ONE MUST BE ABLE TO WRITE. Neither animal nor human memory is large enough or reliable enough to do that job. So now we recognise the source of our sudden and spectacular ascendancy above our fellow creatures. Because we can write we can think millions of times more effectively than they can. And when I say ‘millions’ I am not exaggerating . You can actually calculate the height of our leap — far above the clouds — out among the tumbling stars. My favourite fairy story as a child was Jack and the Beanstalk. Now we don’t need his magic beans. We can vault far above the clouds with pen alone. At first I couldn’t believe these new found powers to explore and to think. It felt more like a fantasy dream than sober reality. I never expected it, but when you think of human-kind’s miraculous ascendancy there has to be a rational explanation. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo painted God reaching out to inspire Man with celestial fire. But notice , their fingers don’t quite touch — as if the artist wasn’t quite sure.

God, off screen right, is seen here powering up Adam in Michelangelo’s famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But as you can see their fingers didn’t quite touch, as if Michelangelo wasn’t quite convinced. I don’t blame him. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Now we know it wasn’t God but some ingenious turquoise miners in the Sinai desert trying to leave decipherable messages for their successors scratched on rock walls, 3,800 years ago. The history of Science turns up other stories of momentous but unintended developments like that — though none quite so dramatic: Johannes Kepler understanding that the darkness of the night sky implied the finiteness of the Universe; Darwin in the Galapagos Islands realising that the diversity of finches beaks from island to island implied the Evolution of species; Alfred Wegener recognising that identical fossil-beds on opposite sides of the Atlantic meant that continents must drift. The problem though with such serendipitous discoveries is that they are so improbable and therefore so hard to believe. .Who is going to believe that Common Sense Thinking (CST) is millions of times more effective than any other scheme simply because of writing — though Einstein did remark “My pencil and I are are smarter than I am”. But think of puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku — they would be impossible without writing. So it is with CST and the Scientific Method. Which brings me full circle to Hidden Galaxies. It took over 20 conflicting clues, 40 years and a great deal of writing to settle that issue. Hidden Galaxies certainly do exist and Fig 3 shows one of the first — pinned down using the Westerbork Radio telescope in Holland.

Fig 3.The first convincing Hidden Galaxy, Virgo HI21 . It was found by Dr. Jon Davies and his team from Cardiff University back in 2007. The banana shaped radio source in the Left hand image is a massive edge-on spinning disc of Hydrogen first found with the Jodrell Bank radio dish in Cheshire, and here seen projected upon a negative optical image of the famous Virgo Cluster of galaxies of which NGC 4254 is the brightest, most massive spiral. As you you can see, something has dragged out a bridge of Hydrogen gas from it towards the banana. To have done so VirgoHi21 must be very massive itself although it appears to be totally dark. The right hand image is a velocity-map of the Hydrogen observed with the Westerbork radio telescope in Holland. The twitch in the banana signifies that it is spinning rapidly like a plate seen edge on, and indeed must be very massive to prevent itself spinning to bits. All the evidence was published in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal in 2007, and although several sceptics have tried to undermine the arguments none has remotely succeeded. Hidden, even totally dark galaxies exist. And , thanks to writing, we know they do.

The more one thinks about Thinking the more fascinating puzzles the subject raises. If, as I am suggesting, Common Sense is the way even scientists like Einstein use, then why didn’t they teach us about the subject at school? I believe I know the answer — but I leave it as a fascinating puzzle for you. IF either of us can solve it we might, like those turquoise miners 3,800 years ago, take humankind on another journey far beyond the visible stars.

NOTES: 1 The Tasmanian novel is ‘Pterodactyl’s Blood‘ ,see ‘My Books’ Category. 2 For Hidden Galaxies see several Posts this Blog in ‘Astronomy ‘Category . 3 For Virgo HI21 see Minchin et al,2007, The Astrophysical Journal, 670, pp 1056-1064. 4 For CST see many Posts this blog under ‘Thinking’ Category. 5 For history of writing see “The Secret History of Writing‘ a series of 3 wonderful films made by Henry Sington and shown on BBC ch. 4 in 2021.