Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld IV’: Chapter 17 / Chapter 18

In the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters of Judgment Day, the wizards prepare their arguments, Marjorie thinks about faith, and I think about the size and shape of the universe. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld IV. 

Trigger Warning: For talk of death, grief, loss of faith

Chapter 17

I’m at a point in my life where, despite being an atheist, I don’t really have much to add to that conversation, nor am I all that interested in hearing anything about atheism as a movement. There have been so many toxic nightmares in that field, so I don’t want anything to do with the casual racism and ableism and xenophobia and whatnot that is now placed front-and-center within atheism as a community. And for me, I don’t have any interest in the endless arguments, either. I have no desire to convince a single person to stop believing in anything, so long as that belief isn’t harming others. Most of my friends are religious, and we all get along fine. I think it’s easy to slip into being edgy and cruel about atheism when you’re younger or first meeting other non-believers, but… look, it just holds no interest anymore. If anything, my lack of belief is more of an emotional thing than some sort of detailed thesis. 

So there are parts of this chapter and Marjorie’s thoughts that resonated with me, and I also imagine it is not hard for many of you to see why, especially given recent events. I’ve been thinking about death and the afterlife a lot, and I wrote a piece for my Patreon back in December where I briefly explored some of what I’m about to write about now. Losing Baize—especially with him so young, especially with so much unresolved between us, especially so suddenly and tragically—has made me wish I believed in something. That part hasn’t happened, but I desire it. I wonder what it would be like to feel comforted by the belief that there are souls, that there’s a life after death, that the deceased can hear us and reach out to us and send us little signs that they know we’re hurting. I crave that sort of reality in the world, and I am not getting it. It’s just silence. And part of me wonders if I am broken in some way, if the rest of the world is built and designed as they should be, and I’ve just got something fundamentally wrong with me, and that’s why none of this works out. 

Because now I see why belief can be comforting. Can be uplifting. Can be healing. And I wish so badly that I could have the experiences that so many other people have had. There are no birds visiting me on my windowsill, carrying the soul or essence of him; there are no storms or rainbows that appear to me; there aren’t items falling off the shelf, items that carry a significance to the two of us; there are no dreams of him, no contact, no messages, no signs.

It’s just… nothing. 

And unlike Marjorie, I don’t feel angry that other people believe something that has not shown itself to exist to me. I don’t even feel resentful. Perhaps there’s jealousy there, an edge of desire that tips into something more toxic, because I want what others have so badly. But then I have to remind myself: would that actually make me feel better? Would it comfort me to know there is life after death if I still have to live this life without someone I love? I don’t know. But I don’t resent people for what they believe. Maybe it’s just envy. I haven’t felt rage or anger when people tell me that he’s watching me now, or that he can definitely see or hear me, despite that they have no proof of this. Are these people “demanding” that “their brand of fiction should be treated as fact”?

Maybe. But that’s one of the many insidious things about grief. It changes. I used to get enraged when people said stuff like that when my father passed. (Part of it was also that he and his family were Buddhist, and no matter how many times I’d state this, people frequently said he was in Heaven with God and the angels. So I feel like my anger was justified here.) I hated the platitudes, I hated all the cheesy, cliché sayings, I hated the things people said that made themselves feel better at the expense of me. 

Now? I don’t know. Almost all of them felt genuine and affectionate to me. My belief itself hasn’t changed, but more so how I view others has. I used to be so much more angry about religious belief. Honestly, I get why, especially coming from the home I came from. Maybe what I needed was more experience. More interactions with other people. More wisdom.

Still. It’s a terrible price to pay to get this sort of epiphany.

Chapter 18

(Still not over the Big Bang pun from the opening of the entire Discworld series, by the way.)

(I will also refuse to get over the fact that TURTLE WORLD was right there for the taking, and yet I never once called the Disc TURTLE WORLD. I am deeply disappointed in myself.) 

This is another one of those concepts that I find difficult to wrap my mind around. I can barely fathom the size of the Milky Way Galaxy, let alone the entire universe. Much like the deep ocean, deep space also terrifies me. Y’all, we just don’t know what’s out there. (Or down there, I should add.) We don’t know shit!!! I love the idea that we can discover more about the universe, but wow, this chapter inspired a lot of existential dread about life and the limits of our knowledge. At the same time, one of the great things about these Science books is how frequently they show the reader that humans figured shit out way earlier than most of our educations teach us. Of course, now I can’t find it, but there was a fantastic Tumblr thread that basically dispelled the notion that “ancient” humans didn’t know anything about the world or the universe, that our history is just a straight line of progress, when THAT IS NOT THE CASE. I mean, the entire last Science book presented us with two scientists developing theories on evolution and natural selection independent of one another! And how often have I been reading these books and then been blown away once I’ve learned some theory was developed or gadget invented WAY before I thought it was? 

So, it was a delight getting to see how long ago people figured out distances to stars with WAY less complicated or effective technology. As for all the Big Bang/static state science? Some of that was a lot harder to understand (not sure I truly get what an inflaton field actually is), but I took away something else from all that. Look… we still don’t know shit. I thought the scientific community had largely accepted the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, so it came as a shock to me to find out that everything is a million times more complicated than that. And it’s going to stay that way because we are (hopefully) still learning more and more about the universe we live in. It means that, ideally, our theories will evolve with the new things we learn. 

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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