Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapter 21

In the twenty-first chapter of The Science of Discworld II, the wizards use Hex to find a future with “psyence” in it, where they meet a scientist who is… not what they think he should be. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

The thing I love most about this chapter—and I was pleasantly surprised that this was as long as it was—is that it is built of a notion many people have about science. Scientists are supposed to look a certain way, behave a certain way, and approach science in a specific way. But the beauty of science and the study of it is that it is so richly diverse and strange and every day and unusual and all these things at once, depending on how you look at it. I am bringing her back up again, but the character of Dana Scully was immensely responsible for changing my own ideas of who could be a scientist and what they could do. Her science was applied every day she worked those cases. She took the strange and the weird and the unexplained, and she tried to rationalize and understand it all. Of course, half the fun of that was that Mulder often had the right theories, and Scully’s science only went so far in explaining the world.

EXCEPT IT TOTALLY DID. And yes, the show is a fiction, but there was such a strong and fascinating basis of science in many of those stories, and I loved the way that show made me feel like I could one day use science to solve things, to help people. I took a much different path, but I still greatly appreciate what that show and that character did. I bring it up because there’s a similar thread to what happens in chapter twenty-one. The wizards have a specific idea of what a scientist looks like, which is absurd all by itself because THEY DON’T HAVE ROUNDWORLD SCIENTISTS. Yet they claim to be experts very quickly, and they reject the scientists that Hex shows them. (And Pratchett is quick to add a layer of commentary to this because, as it turns out, even with magic, the Discworld does have scientists: alchemists. They just operate slightly differently, but they achieve mostly the same thing! More explosions, I guess. Actually, now that I type that out, I might be wrong about that. Humans have blown up a lot of things in the name of discovery.)

So, faced with first the man running the water-lifting screw—that’s science right there, working for the common human!!!—they don’t think it’s good enough. It’s not science! It’s supposed to be “difficult,” and tinkering with an existing technology is just “engineering.” (My brain while reading those parts: ALSO SCIENCE, OH MY GOD.) But that second scientist… I CAN’T. THAT WAS TOO MUCH. It’s too much, but also, it’s so real. That was—if you’ll excuse the term—cutting edge for Sir Isaac Newton’s time. It seems almost like nonsense to us now, hundreds of years later, but that doesn’t make him any less of a scientist because he was wrong about so many things. Archimede’s discovery about the displacement of water, for example, was a HUGE deal, and it remains important to understanding of matter and mass. I enjoyed the distinction made here, though:

“I mean, that sort of thing happens a lot. People always like to believe that what they’re doing has been hallowed by history.”

The truth is that after the fact, humans tend to give these moments a narrative. It’s narrativium at work! How many things were discovered by accident? How many things were discovered but no one thought of it as a discovery? It was just a part of how things were done! Farmers and bakers and blacksmiths and the like—ordinary people to the wizards, mind you—are all responsible for massive advances in scientific thought and theory, but it’s not often framed that way. I feel like that’s what Pratchett was attempting in part with Phocian and Niklias, though the context is different. These characters seemed to be references to Ancient Greece and the way that science and philosophy were linked and practiced. To the outside observer, the whole experiment with a horse is almost silly. Like, why care if a horse has at least one hoof on the ground while it is moving?

But in that experiment, Phocian devises technologies and means of running the tests that are brilliant. He learns how to record sound without fully understanding sound waves. He invents a clock, even though the passage of time does not mean the same thing to him. There’s the sling and the four horses, too, as well as the barge full of sand, and all of this was built just to test an idea. But what happens to this test? It proved that the very person Phocian admired, Great Antigonus, was wrong. And if that isn’t indicative of the entire journey of science, I don’t know what is. We prove our heroes and our forebears wrong all the time. It sometimes happens over hundreds of years, and sometimes, a conclusion is upended almost immediately after it is made. I get Phocian’s despair, sure, but part of the thrill of working in the scientific fields is changing what we know, challenging it and replacing it with a better understanding, and growing in our knowledge of our universe. 

My question, though: how is this going to help the wizards determine where to change the story?

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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