Science has a problem. As a field, it’s suffering from a critical shortage — not of resources, funding, or direction, but of people who care. On the street, you hear the plaintive cry go up: “I was never very good at maths!” The time has come for change.
If you follow Australian politics at all (and my sympathies if you do) you might have heard our Most Illustrious Grand Nabob Malcolm Turnbull and his science minion — sorry, minister — Christopher Pyne ranting on about innovation in science and how Australia just doesn’t have enough. They’re proposing measures like extra funding for CSIRO (in all seriousness, yes, please fund science, thank you) and investment in quantum computing.
I’m here to tell you these are unnecessary. You want to really get people interested in science? Plonk them down in front of a clear stretch of ocean shore for a few hours and have them watch the sand in shallow water.
This brilliant idea stems from an excursion I took with some friends down to the farflung shores of St. Kilda in Melbourne. Every day around dusk, hordes of fairy penguins come zooming in back home to their nests on a length of the beach. This trip is memorable not only for time spent watching these adorable critters waddle around and the mysterious “penguin flu” our party subsequently contracted, but for the time spent prior to the penguins’ arrival.
For the three hours before our flippered friends’ return, my friend and I crouched by a piece of shore lapped by very gentle waves. While slowly moving water offers myriad fascinations — the shifting, shimmering refraction of dying sunlight off of crests or the motion of random debris caught in the currents — what we were watching was a tiny patch of sand engraved with an ornate pattern. What was enthralling about this pattern was not only the squiggles and whorls that composed it but the fact that it appeared to gradually inch towards us across the seabed intact, its shape undisturbed by the motion of the ten centimeters of water above it.
How much of your body can you consciously control?
Wiggle your toes. Breathe in and out. Lift your arm above your head and wave. These are all comfortable motions for us, minute muscular manipulations that we perform, unthinkingly, everyday. Evolution has gifted us with an astonishing degree of control over these fleshy vessels our brains call home. No nerve is just an ending — our skeleto-muscular system is an intricate and intricately-connected network of muscles, tendons and ligaments all interwoven and hooked up to our spinal chord and hypothalamus.
These parts of our nervous system are in charge of coordination, and translate multiple tiny movements into what seems like a relatively simple action, like grabbing a drink or scratching your nose. Next time you whack yourself in the face or trip over your own feet, you know what to blame!
But how much conscious control do we really possess?
A while ago, I wrote a short flashfiction entitled “And they call him Pajama Sam.” As I stated then, this character is not my invention — the blue-skinned hero is the brainchild of Humongous Entertainment and is just one of a series of incredibly engaging point-and-click adventure heroes that shaped my childhood. Humongous Entertainment was formed in 1992, the year after I was born, and I like to think that we grew up together.
The company itself changed hands a few times over its lifetime, being purchased successively by GT Interactive in 1996 and Infogrames Entertainment SA (which later became Atari) in 1999, before falling into decline around 2001 and being revived (albeit in a much-reduced capacity) in 2005 by another incarnation of Infogrames Entertainment. After a few years of relative inactivity, the now-bankrupt HE was bought out by Tommo Inc. in 2013, which released a bunch of the old HE titles into the wider marketplace on Steam in 2015. So here we are!
While all the cool kids were hooked on Phonics, I was hooked on HE games from their first PC release I played at the age of five, Pajama Sam In: No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside in 1996, which I played on my (shared) family computer. It’s a testament to the game’s enduring impact on my childhood when you consider it survived competition with fighting endless hordes of Rattata and Zubat in Pokemon Blue, which came out in the same year.
You’ve heard of infra-red vision, right? You pop on a pair of funny-looking goggles that look like the ones the Doc wears in Back to the Future and then suddenly you have magic eyes — access to a whole chunk of the spectrum previously invisible to your mammalian peepers! No more is your perception limited to the lamentably narrow range of the visible, for the mysteries and wonders of the infra-red are an open book!
Put those goggles on. When you peer now at a live body, you don’t see the hideous mustard yellow of their grandma’s knitted sweater, but mottled gradated patterns that shift and change as their hearts pump warm blood through their veins. When you gaze upon a mural that’s been heated by the sun, you can see the microscopic cracks in its coating from the places where the heat’s leaked in, raising the temperature minutely above their surroundings. Everything is different when you shift your vision to infra-red, and it’s extensively employed for navigation and surveillance, medical imaging and infrastructure.
What if we could see other frequencies, other spectrums?
If you’re not already aware (and if you’re not, Van Badham has a great article in the Guardian to bring you up to date), superstar feminist and Fairfax columnist Clementine Ford has published a blog filled with pages and pages of misogynistic hate she’s received mostly for daring to have an opinion. These attacks range from hundreds of calls of “slut” and “whore”, to encouragements of suicide, to chilling death threats in case she can’t manage it alone.
Recently, these calls intensified when Ford pursued a complaint against one such poster by informing his employer, who — entirely of his own accord and at no encouragement from Ford — terminated the man’s employment. This was not Ford’s fault or responsibility: the man’s behavior and the consequences of his actions are his own.
Recently, I was approached by a friendly representative from Man Crates, a company that prides itself on compiling big wooden crates stuffed to the brim with good gift ideas that can only be opened using a crowbar. Apparently, they have this shiny new box called an ‘Old School Crate’ which doesn’t contain bacon or pipe-carving kits (like some of their others), but rather nostalgia! Or nostalgic items, anyway. They had seen my post ‘Cartoon Memories’ about growing up with Cartoon Network and decided that I was well-qualified to speak on this topic.
Well, if time is money, then nostalgia is the currency of our time, so here’s my list of a few of the things that stir up dusty memories from my childhood. Note that I’ve thrown in a couple that have maybe less-than-positive associations in my mind, because as far as I can tell nostalgia is nostalgia and there’s nothing which ain’t cured by its sepia haze.
Roll up, roll up
And take a spin
There’s naught to lose,
And all to win
I think chance is only complicated when humans get involved.
Now, I may not be the most qualified person in the room to comment on this subject. After all, I have an honors degree in physics, and I can’t even tell you the chance of that ever being useful! But I have done enough statistics and seen enough people ‘massage’ their numbers (a weird mental image, though I bet 7 would be unpleasant while 8 would be nice and smooth) to have made a few observations. And hey, in a world where almost 83% of statistics are made up, my opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. Right?