Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld’: Chapter 2-3

In the second and third chapters of The Science of Discworld, we learn that change is neither good nor bad, but a simple reality. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

Up until my mid-teens, I wanted to be one thing: a scientist. Specifically, I had determined that I wanted to transform myself into Dana Scully, to use science and rationalism to solve mysteries and crimes. I held onto this goal until biology in high school, where I discovered that I’m actually kind of squeamish, so no, maybe being a forensic pathologist was not actually my thing. I still kept up those science classes, though, and my love for Scully never wavered.

The X-Files, despite being a science fiction show, was my first great introduction to science. It was my chance to begin to see the world as a whole lot stranger than I’d been taught. Because even if the show was ridiculous and exaggerated scientific facts or principles, there was so much of it based in reality, and through my obsession with the show, I came to read a lot of cool shit. I haven’t unpacked all my stuff, but I must find some of those old X-Files series guide books, because it turned me on to so much cool shit. Genetic mutation. Government experiments. Successes in cloning. How diseases spread. So I learned REAL THINGS while watching Mulder and Scully not make out for years.

One of those things: that the world changes all the time. I was raised in a house of certainty. There were bedrock rules and guidelines for existence, handed down by God or… well, my mother. She often made proclamations without any sort of justification or reasoning, so I just had to believe my mom was an authority figure in the most literal sense. In this world, men and women acted specific ways, and any deviation was Wrong. God created everything except for those things which were sinful, so… someone else created those? But God created everything. BUT NOT THAT.

As I’m sure you can tell, the world of certainty I lived in wasn’t all that certain. But I didn’t know!!! As a kid, it’s so much easier to believe what you are told. So you can imagine how formative The X-Files was for me. Couple that with my discovery of punk rock bands like Bad Religion and Propagandhi and Rage Against the Machine, and it’s probably a lot more obvious how I came to be the angry little queer I am today. There’s a reason I’m bringing this up, though! The second chapter of this book deals with the idea of constants:

Our scientific theories are underpinned by a variety of numbers, the ‘fundamental constants’. Examples include the speed of light, Planck’s constant (basic to quantum mechanics), the gravitational constant (basic to gravitational theory), the charge on an electron, and so on. All of these accepted theories assume that these numbers have always been the same, right from the very first moment when the universe burst into being.

Look, our world is easier to navigate through constants and through faith, in having things neatly organized and categorized. That’s actually been a rather frequent theme we’ve seen in the Discworld series, especially from Death or from the Witches or from Susan. We want things to be easy and simple, and hell, I even include myself in this. I’m not exempt from this desire. However, the world is complex, and it’s always going to be so. That’s especially the case with scientific endeavors, and it’s always healthy to remind ourself that the things we hold as constants today could very easily become obsolete in the immediate future. Or the distant future! The scope of what the authors refer to in chapter two seems almost meaningless, since… well who cares if atoms vibrate differently over such an absurd span of time? But the point here is that things change. Our understanding of the world can change in an instant, and as uncomfortable as it may be, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

Sometimes, I think about how much humanity has changed in the thirty-odd years that I’ve been alive. Computers. Smartphones. Social media. App culture. The things that are now part of my daily life that would’ve been straight-up science fiction to me if you told me about it when I was a child. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t question developments or that we should just accept changes without investigating the ramifications. But we, as humans, have done some pretty spectacular things, and having a knee-jerk negative reaction doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

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