"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Grover and Annie
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
The scene is a university chemical laboratory. Grover is fretting over his latest experiment, which he cannot get to work. He is attempting to synthesize a material that he has dubbed Libertium, a theoretical substance that could be produced as cheaply as plastic while being stronger than steel. Unfortunately for Grover, the results are not cooperating with the pages of chemical reactions he has meticulously worked out. Annie, a co-worker, stops by for a visit.
Annie: Hey, Grover, how goes it?
Grover: Not good. I'm so close to succeeding I can taste it, but I'm missing some small, key detail. But I just can't see it.
A: Ah, so the quest for Libertium continues, yes? You know, I took a look at your equations like you asked, and I think I may have found something.
G: Really? What?
A: Well right here on the very first page, you introduce the reagent fluorine to induce reaction number seven.
G: As I must, yes.
A: Really? Are you sure you have to do that?
G: Of course. That's just basic chemistry right there. I can't possibly get to the next series of reactions based on the resultant minarchium without reaction seven, and that reaction won't occur without fluorine. That's right out of the 101 textbook.
A: Yes, it certainly is. But I really couldn't find any evidence showing that the reaction definitively would not take place without fluorine. Have you tried to work through this without it?
G: No. Why would I? Ever since it was discovered that fluorine does initiate that reaction, everyone who has wanted to initiate that reaction has introduced it. That's a wheel I don't need to reinvent.
A: But have you seen evidence showing that the reaction is in fact impossible without fluorine?
G: I don't need to. Do you think you are the first to think of this? It's been done this way for all these years for a reason. You think you have had some insight here that the greatest minds in the field have not considered before? Do you really think it necessary to question every single solitary fact in the textbooks so as to believe what they say? That's why the books exist, because someone already did all that. Really, Annie.
A: But later on, the fluorine is what's probably causing the breakdown in the compounds on page 17. It's one of the most reactive elements in the universe, and while the small amount you introduce at the beginning is negligible, by the time you get to the end here and are attempting to construct some of the more delicate molecules, these fluorine ions can't be kept from altering them or even breaking them down completely.
G: Yes, I see that, but the fact is that I can't get around introducing that necessary element on the very first page. If there were only some way to stop it from reacting later on...
A: So you want to use this element because of what it naturally does, but you also wish it would later not do what it naturally does?
G: Gee, thanks. Now you're depressing me. Maybe this is just destined to fail.
A: No, Grover. Just try it without the fluorine. See what happens.
G: That's just a waste of time, Annie. I don't have the energy. Did you maybe find anything else?
A: No, just that one obvious, glaring thing.
G: Look, I appreciate what you're saying, but everyone knows that reaction seven requires fluorine. Everybody's done it that way since forever, and it has worked every time. It seems it is you who are wishing for something to occur that quite naturally does not.
A: Grover, we are scientists. We rely upon objectively interpreting empirical data, not on mysticism.
G: Mysticism? What in the world are you talking about?
A: I'm talking about you. You have created in the middle of objective reality this tiny little god that lives in the center of an impenetrable, opaque sphere. You dig into the very fabric of existence with your logic and your intellect, demanding evidence for every facet you observe, but then there is this sphere floating there, and when you see it, your curiosity evaporates. Logic abandons you. You have been handed an explanation for the sphere, and you receive the information about it uncritically, and you swallow it whole without processing it—without breaking it down into its basic components to make sure that it actually obeys the rules of the universe and is a logical part of reality.
You have faith in an external authority that has decreed a thing, and you unquestioningly bow down and worship it. We all have a need for logical consistency, because we need to understand the world around us. If the world is logically inconsistent, then we cannot ever be competent to understand it. And yet there is always someone there, claiming to know the unknowable, and we listen and accept. Somehow we are incompetent to judge reality, but others—the authorities—are, and so we find we must listen and accept what they say and not think about what they are saying because it is beyond our comprehension.
We act like children who obediently follow the orders of our wise elders, trusting them to guide us through this complex and ultimately unknowable existence. We acknowledge their superiority and surrender ourselves to their wills. We lose our individuality and our self-confidence. Why try something if the experts say it is not possible? They know better than we do. But then how is any progress possible?
Wasn't every discovery an impossibility before it came into being? Wasn't every expert correct when they claimed that x was impossible because it had never been done before? And then weren't they all incorrect as soon as someone achieved the “impossible”?
The “experts” love to make proclamations that create these tiny little gods that live in the centers of impenetrable, opaque spheres that float around in reality and must be revered, worshiped, and never questioned. But they're always false gods. Whenever someone decides to break in and look for the gods inside the bubble, they are never there. There is only the fabric of reality, the same as everywhere else. Nothing mysterious is found therein, but rather perhaps a new piece of knowledge is discovered that no one had before considered because they were all afraid to just pop the damn imaginary bubble.
Grover, if you don’t want to do it, why don't you let me try to work through the experiment without introducing the fluorine. Humor me. I don't see why it can't work.
G: I can't. The government regulates many of the compounds necessary to this experiment and only allows me fixed amounts that I have to account for. If I try it without fluorine, they will consider the experiment as unauthorized and I will lose my funding. And besides, if I did succeed like you say, no one would even bother reading my summary because after they saw reaction seven supposedly occurring without fluorine, they would stop right there and pitch it into the garbage can.
By the way, nice rant.
A: Thanks. Ah, government funding, controlling, and delaying the advances of science. How I wish it wasn't around to slow us down!
G: Now don't go off on one of your crazy anarchy rants here, Ms. Rationality. One diatribe a day will suffice. Everyone knows that we have to have government or society will devolve into chaos. Besides, how else would science advance without government funding? You think people are just going to be able to invent things like personal computers working out of their own garages using their own money?
A: I'm just saying we should try it without the government. See what happens.
G: That's just a waste of time to consider, Annie. I don't have the energy.
A: There you go with your mysticism again.
G: Mysticism? What in the world are you talking about?
A: [As Annie begins to repeat her rant word for word, Grover flees the laboratory]