Archive for category Ask Dr. Rocket Surgery
If someone can come up with a functional reverse dictionary, I think they could make a great deal of money on the ads they would no doubt coat their webpage with, since that’s how it’s done these days.
For example, take a word like homunculus. Say you want a similar word, but with a non-person meaning. (If it were a math equation imagine Homunculus – person + thing) As in a perfectly formed tiny version of a thing. Maybe it’d give you simulacrum or something similar as a result, even though it doesn’t quite match the parameters.
My point being that English has a metric stuffload of words and it’d be nice if it came with a manual to navigate from word to word so you could fall back upon it when your mental reference materials inevitably came up short.
I’m sure most, if not all of you have heard the St. Ives riddle. To those who are the exception:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks.
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
how many were going to St. Ives?
I don’t have time to argue the math or the reasoning behind it, but it’s safe to say the answer is a number. I’d imagine it somehow relates the questioner, a man, seven women, and 49 bags filled with 343 adult cats and 2401 kittens total. (Evenly distributed into the sacks, of course.)
It bothers me that whoever is asking the question is so bloomin’ vague. The fact that you can argue seventeen different answers (YOU were going to St. Ives! 2800 wives, sacks, cats, and kittens were going to St. Ives! The St. Ives Bureau of Random Economic Statistics gives a figure of 48,439,000 incoming cat units for fiscal year 2007!) means the question itself needs work.
It seems to me the lack of specificity is a symptom of a much deeper problem, however. And it’s not as if the questioner can’t be specific. He or she is quite certain about the number of cats per bag. In fact, the certainty about the contents of these undoubtedly massive sacks seems to imply that there was a conversation with these mysterious cat transporters:
“Hello, travelers, what’s up?”
“My seven wives and I are making our biweekly cat delivery.”
“Oh! I can’t imagine any logistical or social problems arising in a career like that! I myself am a dentist; the one out of five who never agrees with the others for plot-driven reasons that are never completely explained. How many cats are in each bag?”
“These are sacks, my contentious dentist acquaintance. There are 7 cats and 49 kittens in each sack. How did you know the cats were in the sacks?”
“I must confess the hissing and shrieking as the sacks scraped along the ground gave your secret away. Also, it says ‘CATS’ on the side.”
It begs the question why this person was talking to the cat people in the first place. Do you have any idea how much feline biomass was packed into those containers? A reasonable weight for an adult cat is approximately 10 pounds. Given seven sacks per wife and 7 cats per bag, we have a total of 490 pounds of Adult Cat Weight alone.
Clearly, these women are not to be trifled with.
But we aren’t finished. Now for the kittens. While we aren’t given the exact location of St. Ives, (I suspect it’s Utah) in America they seem to suggest splitting cat families no earlier than ten weeks, an age that would give the kittens a weight of somewhere around two pounds each. Of course, the people we’re talking about don’t seem to be the type to follow reasonable suggestions, but I imagine any cat rancher would rather not spend more money on cat food than is necessary, and would likely sell the cats at this time. (If these people were ranching said cats and kittens to be used as food, it’s possible age isn’t a factor to them at all. I find this somewhat absurd, even by polygamist cat-rancher standards.)
343 kittens per woman at 2 pounds each gives us 686 pounds of Kitten Weight.
490 lbs. ACW
+ 686 lbs. KW= 1176 pounds of cats per wife.
To put that in perspective, these women are lugging around a third of a Buick over their shoulders, except instead of hauling harmless, relatively inert hunks of automobile, they’ve packed 56 cats into a cramped space, and they’ve done it seven times over. Each.
I have a hard time imagining two cats shoved into a bag together for any length of time. Shoot, even one cat.
Of course, it is nowhere stated that the cats are alive…
Take out one of the logistical problems and suddenly the riddle becomes ever so much more disturbing. Assuming the police are not eaten for sustenance by the Seven Strongest Women on Earth, I can see the headlines:
POLYGAMIST CAT-RANCHERS CAUGHT WITH 2744 DEAD CATS ON WAY
TO ST. IVES FROM ST. IVES CRAP I DON’T EVEN KNOW
If you meet this walking catastrophe on the way to town and your only concern is mathematics, your garden is most likely short a few vegetables.
…Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
Don’t bother with math, just flee for your lives.
Wherein I point out a major omission in part I.
This, conveniently, is the part of the process that I as a person have difficulty taking full advantage of (clarification follows) and as such the follow-up will likely be much shorter than the opener. The problem with part one is that it addresses none of the deeper significance behind the entire idea of God, the actual relationship aspect. Part one focused entirely on the practical/rational side of the God argument–necessary, maybe, but by no means the entire picture.
If you’ve read about Christianity at all outside of the news, you may come across the idea that at its core it is not about moralism or wreaking human judgment upon others or building an armada of Don’ts. The problem is that many Christians (yes, capital C–being a Christian doesn’t make you immune to sin anymore than being a firefighter makes you flame retardant), ‘christians’, and others either act as if it all were so or don’t care enough to find out otherwise. My honest belief is that because of both internal (whatever you would happen to consider ‘internal’) and external influences, many people do not view Christianity favorably. They simply don’t know what real followers of Christ are supposed to look like because they’ve been unable to see one modeled properly amidst the thunderous wave of hypocrisy or disparagement.
So on a day these folks hear that Christianity is supposedly about God’s love, we wonder why it doesn’t get a favorable response.
It’s about recognizing who He is and who you are and building from there, stopping only when you arrive at the cross.
Mind you, corrupting the message isn’t the only issue, either. There’s always the chance that we forget entirely where the focus lies–on love between Creator and created. I offer this as a counterbalance to my apologetics-heavy part I.
Lewis puts it well in The Great Divorce:
“There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.”
I will get one thing straight. I’m not attempting to decide whether or not building a logical case for God and then deciding Well I guess I should just take this Jesus guy’s word for it and do what He says because I have nothing to lose constitutes saving faith. My point is that walking up to the last woman (or man) on earth and saying “Honey, let’s save the species” does not a complete relationship make. Sure you’ve addressed the practical reasons for getting together, but your words speak nothing of love itself.
My mind started wandering in the shower a few mornings ago, the wandering being a product of weeks/months/years of questions and doubt and hope and that kind of stuff. This is an attempt to organize it, forgive me.
Faith (as in believing something that I can’t know for certain) has–on the surface–always been a difficult concept for me. I don’t like its lack of concrete answers. I like to look at something and know that it’s either completely explained, or somewhat so. It’s nice to know that if I throw mashed potatoes at something, they’ll either stick or they won’t.
Knowing this, it’d be great if God would rain down public supernatural events on a regular basis. Unfortunately–from my perspective and to my knowledge–that isn’t how He operates, and we’re forced to make decisions based on what we’ve been given.
Some people don’t ever need to question beyond what they can see. What’s there is enough. (I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever met one of those people.)
I can’t completely do that. There are still whys, and barring some kind of public (or private) supernatural event, I suspect my own personal whys will always remain. And I often wonder why–on a personal level–life must be this way. A seeming lack of indisputable supernatural activity can be irritating on multiple levels, not the least of which is that faith is a bear to build an argument around, and I do like to argue.
As a result I’m compelled to make observations.
Observation: Life exists. (Unless you’re under the impression that all of existence is one incredibly convincing lie, in which case there is really no point in discussing anything with you because if life is one great prevarication anyway you might as well spend it doing something else.)
Assuming you haven’t packed up your crazy and left, we’ll make a–
Conclusion: Something brought said life about.
By simple interpretation of those two statements, we can then conclude that it came about by either a natural or supernatural means, both being–at the very lowest level–mutually exclusive. It’s not as if natural processes produced God, and then suddenly–along with everything ever–became subject to Him, and it’s not like God made the Big Bang (if you’re of the persuasion that it goes back that far) and then died, letting everything go on ticking for an indeterminate length of time. I’m certain you could distill both of those thoughts into natural or supernatural anyway. They’d just be the illegitimate spawn of people with too much time on their hands.
The question then is: What is natural?
Through observation and interpretation we’ve discovered rules. Two laws of thermodynamics in particular, that (simplified) tell us that A: Things do not spring out of nothing, and B: Things that exist move from order to disorder. We know our universe either had some sort of beginning, which violated the rules as we know them, (ex nihilo does that) or it jumped out of what had previously (during an eternity of yesterdays?) been a stable point containing the ingredients for everything ever. Which also came from something, which came from something…which came from nothing?
None of that is technically relevant, because if you accept the current narrative and go back far enough, whether through the big bang itself, or quantum fluctuations, or interaction with other universes or dimensions or branes, when you finally cannot look any further, (farther? Probably not–I think at some point actual distance became moot) how do you naturally explain whatever it is you find?
Do you choose not to explain it, dismiss explanations altogether, and steadily push on, envisioning reality as a never-ending matryoshka with you at the center?
Follow the tracks of a million ‘somethings that begat somethings’ backward through existence and you will have to find either a something that came from nothing, or a something with no natural explanation.
And here’s why.
Scientific practice relies on observation and interpretation. Reasonable, right? Here’s a thing, it looks like this because x. Here’s another thing, it is what it is because of x as well. Do that a hundred or a thousand times and x becomes your go-to explanation. Galaxies are observed flying apart from each other? Extrapolate backward and you decide that maybe they were close together at some point. Really close together. If that’s as far as you look, that’s all you’ll see.
Now hold that thought.
Look at a rosebush. Only a rosebush. Forget the plants it grows among, forget the bees, forget the ground, forget the sun and rain and the world around it. Lacking any external cues to its existence, tell me what a rosebush does, and why. Why does it have flowers? Obviously, having detached it from its context, you must explain its purpose without referring back to anything external during your explanation.
Tough? Now do it from inside the bush.
Our universe–at whatever scale of reality that eventually turns out to be–is that rosebush. From inside it we will never be able to obtain a complete knowledge of what exactly it is. We won’t even be capable of defining its limits because we won’t be able to see through them to understand if that’s truly what they are. Does it (the universe, not the rosebush) end at the edge of the bubble, beyond quasars and the CMB? Are there more ‘universes’ out there than just the one we can see now? How do other dimensions factor in?
We can push the boundaries of answerability, but we cannot break them. We’re doomed to remain inside the system, and without external context completely interpreting even a simple plant becomes impossible. There’s no way to truly tell where it came from, there is only speculation based on the rules within the bush itself; never mind that there might be other forces at work beyond its borders. Internal speculation doesn’t even begin to explain the external reality. There are things beyond that rosebush that would fracture the minds of anyone inside.
Knowing this, and assuming research continues indefinitely, at some point the question “What else is out there?” is going to become completely academic because there will be nowhere else to look. We will run up against the wall of what we can see and touch, and the question of what lies beyond the wall will return to the realm of philosophers rather than scientists.
God or not, the construct of reality will eventually require explanations outside of natural laws, explanations without empirical evidence, explanations based on faith in orphaned numbers and extensions of equations, hypothetical answers to problems that no one can see in a land without a field on which to test them.
In essence, science today is chasing the supernatural while denying the same.
So yesterday, as I’m assigning duties to the technicians in preparation for tomorrow’s launch, my globe-trotting business friend Frank calls with a question. He says: “Hey Ian, I’m about to sign a major shipping contract with a firm in Indiana, and I wanted to make an impression. They keep talking about “Hoosiers”. What’s the deal?”
In my mind, I debated the merits of simply telling Frank that they’re all insane; that Hoosier is simply a weird word that no other place in the country cares about.
I said: “Frank, are you sure you want to get involved in this kind of thing?”
Frank just gave me one of those looks, but I couldn’t see it because we were on the phone. I don’t think Frank is all there.
But I told him I’d get back to him and started researching anyway.
The term “Hoosier” hearkens back to the French and Indianan war, back during the days when France was into that sort of thing and Indiana was still an independent country. It comes from a French term “Hoosier”, which is literally, “One who hooses”. Hoosing in turn was birthed from one of two expressions, one of which I cannot repeat in any company, polite or impolite; the other of which involves a penguin, four horses, a stockade, and a great deal of unhampered ingenuity. The details would be much too lengthy and boring to repeat.
In addition to releasing “Hoosier” into the English language in a small bizarre portion of the country, the war also brought us many other expressions, as wars often do, including “One if buy land, two if sell land, three if you’re too poor to deal with that kind of thing” and “Early to bed, early to rise, causes a man to eventually wake up at 5:30 pm and screws up his circadian rhythm.”
Oddly enough, neither of the participating groups spoke English–the French spoke some sort of Latin derivative, the Indianans initially spoke whatever kind of language would permit words like “Hoosier”– so the introduction of English phrases was a great surprise to all.
As a side note, the French won that war using a time-honored strategy, the combination of degrading insults and cannon fire. The Indianans were eventually consigned to a reservation, located somewhere between Illinois and Ohio.
I called Frank back and explained the situation. Frank, ever the patient sort, had already gone forward with the deal, arriving at the meeting in a gaudy shirt with “Hoosier” emblazoned across the front.
Turns out he was actually in India. They laughed him out of the room.