Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Feynman Fallacy

My last (real) post was a rant on the crazy notion that anyone can just roll on up and get to the bottom of a technical scientific problem with merely a bit of digging around and careful thinking. Since then I've been wondering how we can finally crush this nutty view. Between the people who think that Truth doesn't exist, and those who think it's readily available to anyone with the wily initiative to open their browser and look, the number of truly sensible people in this world of several billion seems to have shrunk to approximately six. My only consolation is that I am one of them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Postal failure

It's been about two months since my last post. Sorry for the unannounced silence -- I thought I would take off a week or two while I mulled over the next post, and then the weeks kept passing by. And they're still passing; this little jumble of excuses is hardly the next post I had in mind.

Following my rant about a scientific journalist, I tried to do a little science journalism of my own. A bit of investigative journalism, even. I thought it would be fun. How hard could it be? Even if I was a terrible failure at it, at least I would have a story to tell.

It went surprisingly well. I started to learn interesting things. In order to learn the interesting things, I had to agree to keep them in the strictest confidence. Fine. I can keep a secret. Don't worry, it's all "off the record". Just tell me what you know!

And then of course I was left with a story I couldn't tell. That was the worst outcome possible -- a failure I couldn't even brag about.

That's the sort of experience that can make a sensitive soul like mine misplace its blogging mojo.

Speaking of stories and failure... The little story I alluded to a while ago, written for a competition in honour of the centenary of the completion of Einstein's general theory of relativity -- a rare opportunity indeed -- was also a flop. It did not win the competition.

A likely explanation is that the judges were not impressed with my appalling reliance on the hackneyed device of a historical counterfactual. I was appalled by it myself, but couldn't resist. There is a lot of fun to be had with counterfactuals, at least for an author; perhaps not so much for a reader. It may also be that my story did not exhibit appropriate respect to the venerable Professor E, who, as I've noted before, I have to thank for my entire career.

(That's hardly true, is it? In a world where general relativity had never been discovered, would I now be wandering the streets aimlessly, unemployed and unaccountably devoid of purpose? I think not, although it provides yet another historical counterfactual with wonderful fictional possibilities. You see how attractive they can be?)

The final option is that the story was simply shite.

My trusty physicist's ego informs me that this last option makes no logical sense, and the other options are highly improbable as well. I'm left with the most likely conclusion, which is that there was an error in the electronic transference. They received 5000 words worth of random ASCII characters. No doubt they were still impressed by the stiff challenge presented by my narrative technique, but sadly only a minority of judges had the artistic backbone to vote for it as a winner. It's very likely that several of the more discerning among them were associated with major publishers, and spent some time haggling over who would make me an offer of expanding my ASCII diatribe into a book-length work. Perhaps even a series. Ultimately they may have concluded that they could achieve similar results with zero involvement from me, and a thrilling epic devoted to the stochastic exploits of 255 highly distinct characters may be chugging through the publication pipeline even as I type.

Of course, I try to shun my physicist's confidence when writing fiction, and instead assume the more authorial demeanour of paralysing insecurity. As such, I am reluctant to simply publish the original story here. That would be far too brash. Instead I will dilly and dally and offer irritating teasers like the above. But perhaps one day I'll give in and throw back a double shot of whisky and click "Publish".

Until then, I'll try to put together a "normal" blog post or two. In my current delicate state I'm not sure I can manage them weekly, but I'll see what I can do.