Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapter 2

In the second chapter of The Science of Discworld II, stories rule our world more than we might think they do. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

This is a cool introduction to what I’m about to experience, even though I don’t have a full grasp on what the Roundworld or Discworld sections will be. It’s just a preview, but it’s got one of my favorite things in it: the power of storytelling. That’s not something I would have associated with science, but in just one chapter, I’m pretty convinced. Stories are, as the text notes, vitally important to the Discworld novels. People’s stories of the world around them manifest as reality, so much so that the more people believe in any concept, the more it becomes real. Now, here on the Roundworld, many of us probably wish this was the case, but maybe it’s not in a literal sense. Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, however, argue that this does happen, just not in a way we expect.

But lemme back up, because I want to talk more about the notion of our Minds developing in a world that is mostly Mindless. It’s a disturbing thought on the surface, or at least it was when I was younger. It wasn’t something I was necessarily prepared to deal with then, as especially as I began to understand the notion that the universe was disinterested in me or anyone else. I’ve mentioned my religious upbringing many times before, but it was what I was thinking about as I read much of this chapter. I was raised on stories that told me very definitive things about the nature of the world and existence, and as I got older—and things got worse for me—I had to accept that many of these stories were simply not true. The universe did not have a Mind, the universe did not care about me. Life just went on. 

Which isn’t to suggest that I haven’t replaced one set of stories with another one. I absolutely have, and I don’t kid myself on that. But telling stories is how we survive this world. Which makes this all a very meta conversation, doesn’t it? I’m not just referring to the text narrating me… narrating. Yeah, that part was amazing. But I mean that this chapter goes into great detail about the “strange loop” and causality. Does anyone else get uncomfortable when they start thinking about thinking? Because I get this weird feeling that it’s all going to unravel if I spend too much time thinking about it, but then I can’t stop thinking about it, and now I’m thinking about this same motif from A Hat Full of Sky and how hard it is to not think about something. 

Anyway, the thing I took away from this chapter more than anything else is best represented by the story of carbon resonance. The point that Stewart and Cohen make is that even scientists can be twisted by the bias that comes in stories. Fred Hoyle thought he had perfectly found the resonant stage of the carbon atom because all the pieces fit together so well. Of course, that was just the story he had told himself. Understandably so! His “cosmythology” (I LOVE THAT WORD) overrode what we knew of carbon and our universe because the human mind loves stories. And we see this unfold in infinite variations in Roundworld in non-scientific situations. How many many political groups tell stories that benefit themselves and energize bases? How frequently does our news do exactly what this book describes when it comes what reports are given to us and how they are given to us? We’re currently dealing with a near-monopoly of local news stations due to Sinclair Broadcast Group, and we continue to reel from the effects of one company pushing forth their version of stories as the nightly news. So, this doesn’t always happen in an innocuous sense; there are people who absolutely weaponize our love of stories. 

Anyway, I’m super curious to see where Stewart and Cohen are going to take this. I’d love to see more stuff on how our minds developed into such complicated things, and I’m guessing that the Elves will be used as a means to explore human evolution. Maybe? Oh god, I’m still unprepared for ALL of this. 

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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