For a friend.
Any real paradigm change in our understanding of how the universe actually tickety tocks along always starts with one person having an interesting and unusually controversial idea, which is always fought against tooth and nail by reactionaries who are heavily invested in whatever worldview is the currently accepted orthodoxy.
There’s nothing wrong with that and that’s the way it should be, since that’s the only way we can robustly examine new ideas and prune off the crap ones. Consensually accepted ideas, like settled science, are a chimera of the intellectual couch potato, buoyed up from all those tired old broken springs beneath them by nothing more than their own flatulence.
I’m not talking here about someone fiddling around with some equation on the third level fringe implications of a rock solid theory, nor that sort of monomaniac who believes in an orbital tea pot or even those really really clever people amongst us who after years of really intensive education are now girding their loins in preparation to finally starting work on that massive teacup storm theory that nobody in their right mind really gives a rat’s ass about, but rather those blessed once a century or two people who come up with ideas that really rock the socks off our little ball of dirt wobbling its way around the sun.
When you’ve spent your entire life believing the universe works in a certain way, writing books about it and teaching that as Gospel, it’s understandable to resent a little shit coming out of nowhere and pointing out seemingly obvious things which imply you were wrong all along. Implying is me putting a nice spin on it, because I’ve got better social skills than the excreta in question; it’s graphically nailing a flawed idea to the wall for all the world to see. The people on the receiving end of the nail job may have the job title scientist, but as always the people holding it are still all too painfully human.
As an aside and if it’s any consolation, there really wasn’t any way of softening the blow. They were always going to come after you in response, because people that smart find it hard to accept they were so badly wrong. Anyway, invariably the little shit embarrassing the hell out of everyone is a dodecahedron-shaped peg attempting a terribly bad imitation of fitting into that round hole of what we would call a normal person.
They’re actually quite easy to spot.
Newton had at least three nervous breakdowns that we know of, was a virtual hermit for eight years and yet went on to chair the Royal Society, lay the foundations of celestial mechanics, optics, applied mathematics and as an afterthought the mad bugger came up with calculus, though he was sly enough to keep the latter up his sleeve for a number of years until Leibnitz was on the verge of publishing, just to cut the legs out from under him.
At the same time, he worked illegally and therefore in secret on his ideas about Alchemy and naturally there is no documentation of his success or not in that area. I would seriously love to read his Principia Alchamaea, if perchance there might be such a paper. Oh to have been born a few hundred years earlier. Once upon a time, giants bestrode the very Earth like Goliaths.
The best qualification Einstein ever earned was an average grade teaching cert, which wasn’t even good enough to get him a job as a teacher in his own country. The only way somebody like him can nearly fail an unfailable course to be a teacher is for their body to turn up at every class and at the same time their mind drifting around somewhere else altogether. Cosmology’s loss became the Swiss patent office’s gain, where he became a clerk.
We can only be thankful that he still liked to fiddle around in his evenings and on weekends with puzzles concerning life, the universe, special relativity and things like that. I suppose we all have to have our little hobbies as a break from mind numbingly boring jobs.
The conclusions to be drawn from looking at any list of the big ideas people is that they aren’t predictable occurrences, can’t be manufactured just in time by any educational process known to man, won’t profile to the normal, will always be at the slightly bewildered centre of savage controversies raging around them by hordes of passionate supporters and equally passionate detractors and rarely end up with the long term loving relationships most of us expect of life. It will always be a tough row to hoe for them.
On a strict Dawkin’s analysis, they are never of immediate utility and should therefore be selected out of the gene pool but that sort of stoopid hammer the screw home thinking breaks down when it comes to us because we’re unique – we have consciousness and something else which gets slipped under the altruism rock with some embarrassment on all sides because science daren’t speak its name.
I do relish sitting around the green baize table when someone gets dealt that card by reality, peeks at it for a horrified moment and quickly flicks it into the discard pile to common nods of relief – nobody wants to grapple with that one from inside their necessarily stripped down and consequently crippled view of the universe. That would be nearly grownup stuff.
They may be the runt of the litter but the protectiveness thing kicks in. We don’t throw them over the nearest cliff like the Spartans, instead we give them extra protection and sometimes that’s against the very clever people amongst us who are outraged because of the unfairness of what they represent. They can just see new and shiny things without having done all the blood, sweat and tears of years of education. It’s just not fair, it really isn’t.
The world is full of clever educated people and you’d be wise to allow them to refine an original idea once they’ve been handed it but you’d be a fool to expect them to come up with truly original thinking. Their minds have been formed, trained, the malleable red-hot iron of their youth has been hammered, bashed and is now cold and annealed. Progress in their education has been trammelled by conforming to whatever is orthodoxy and punishing any wild ideas which are off the reservation. All the proper ways of thinking are by now a Galvanic reflex for them. It’s a form of instutionalised child abuse of the young mind by the well-intentioned.
All life develops a mix of skills and mechanisms to protect itself and survive, because that prime directive is welded deep down into the very DNA of life itself, and not even the big ideas people are an exception to it. Mostly, I think life crushes them down early, but the few survivors get along because there’s someone around who looks after them. Even after they’ve fallen out of the nest, they’ve a habit of bumping into people who realise there’s something special about this fledgling and they’ll never make it without some help. It’s a blundering and unconscious throw yourself at their mercy ploy and Ferris Bueller would be so proud to add it to his playbook.
That’s a passive strategy and doesn’t really count because it’s reactive and beyond their control. The big one and always their coping mechanism du jour is to retire within themselves. Withdraw. Gimme your best shot big guy, it won’t hurt, but there’s always a gang of them vying to take coup. Play the idiot savant, do the odd bit of performing seal when it’s demanded and after they’ve all had their jollies and fucked off, you can get back to chipping your way through to something only you can see. It’s good, it’s so comfortable and so easy. At some point, you realise it’s a quiet death and you’re not too bothered.
They’re easy to abuse, since there’s not much sense there. Sense. Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling, as the old saying goes and there’s usually a bunch of them trying out that theory. Take it, just take it and that passive acceptance is understood to be some sort of confirmation of the cruel off-piste activities their nice parents definitely wouldn’t approve of. What they don’t realise is that they’re just the latest wave of abusers, the new guys in town.
You’ve been done over by better and learned to use the emotion mixing deck in your head. Slide everything down to the bottom stops and wait, just wait for it all to blow over. It’s all been turned down and nearly but never quite muted. But the emotion is still there. Raw, red, naked and angry, just smouldering away and ready to rock the fucking shop.
I hoiked you out of that comfortable niche and straight into the danger zone. I told you from the very get go that after everyone got over themselves telling you how wonderful and marvellous you were, they’d turn on you because I knew you’d be pulling down some of their temples. I know you and I know the beast. You’re way too shiny a penny kiddo, they’ll always be coming after someone like you. Well, that’s happened. You wanna go back to safely pushing a grey sodden mop around the bogs on your way to your next stay in the big house, sulk away, but the delicious ideas will do the swirl down the john and nobody will care.
You’ve taken a bloody good bashing from mediocrity’s bootboys but notice despite their viciousness, they’ve steered well clear of your idea, because they just don’t know how to even begin refuting it, since it neatly fits all the awkward data points of reality they’ve been struggling to explain away for years. The outlier makes the case for the outliers perhaps. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.
Yes, you’re shocked at the venom, especially from such nice educated people like them. Welcome to our planet Earth at its grubby worst. It’ll get better though. You’ve laid it all out for anyone to see and there’s really nothing more you can do. Relax, get on with something else. Leave them all to kill each other over it. Five years or so down the line, you’ll have science groupies throwing their knickers at you.
A bugger like you was always doomed to be an expensive friendship for someone like me, the smartie who long ago decided to do his very own bop in his very own space and never be a fanboy of anyone or anything. Knowing that, I embraced you anyway because your ideas danced and you didn’t even notice their effect on me. I somehow allowed you to slip through the chinks in my old crustacean armour.
I’m not you nor on my best day could ever be someone like you, but I do know some stuff myself and I’ll be damned if I let you slink away to be eventually proved right four decades later. The stuff I know is simple, and by the way you’d be totally shite at it, because it’s all about those tricky variables called people.
The unflattering reality is that for most supposedly original ideas, their time has come. If it wasn’t Crick and Watson who’d first worked out it was a double helix, someone else would have a month or two later because the idea already had a lot of other people chasing hot on its heels. That fruit was just aching to drop from the tree.
The sad truth to tell is that most ideas are the logical off the shoulder progeny of current thinking who’re just absolutely dying to be born. That’s all fine, it’s all good stuff really but at heart it’s just refinement – at best the next logical transformation of the equation. Not a lot of smarts required really.
What really moves us along is the big whacking bolt out of the blue idea. It’s not the usual logical inferential progression of anything. It’s just a big boss fuck off idea, so radically far out there in front of anything else it’s a gobsmacker. After the stunned silence, it’s slowly recognised as the real deal. We’ll spend the next few decades building backwards from it into current thinking. So few people have that gift within them. You have it.
You come back to us.
Related articles by Pointman: