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Puddle thinking

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgThe late, much lamented Douglas Adams once delivered what he called the ‘Parable of the Puddle’.

“. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting hole I find myself in – it fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well - must have been made to have me in it!’ … And as the sun rises in the sky … the puddle gets smaller and smaller, he’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant …to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch-out for.”

Assuming that ‘the song is about you’ springs easily and naturally from our innate vanity and explains why science’s implications are frequently so difficult to accept. For science, the best method we have to make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves as Richard Feynman said, teaches us that we are not the centre of things. Nature’s story isn’t ‘about’ us at all. Indeed, it isn’t really ‘about’ anything.

Sigmund Freud famously identified three ‘dethronements’. Astronomers dethroned the Earth from the centre of the Solar System. Evolution dethroned humans as the uniquely ordained pinnacle of creation, with dominion over it. Then Freud showed that we were not the rational beings we thought we were.

Freud’s self-aggrandisement apart, (he definitely thought the song was about him; Martin Rudwick, whose book I review this month, would rather include the discovery of Deep Time) there is something in this. The Anthropocene is explicitly about us; and faced as we are with a planet undergoing dramatic change, it is dangerous to think, with the puddle and Dr Pangloss, that in this world ‘of ours’, everything must always be for the best.

In our main feature this week, Dave Waltham goes further. In his book Lucky Planet (reviewed here), he suggests that although this is the only world we really know, Earth is more of a ‘space oddity’ than even some scientists acknowledge. He even doubts our ability ever to know it properly. If the Universe was not designed for us, then it follows that it was not designed to ‘be knowable’. We can only do our best; but perhaps we only ever see those things that happen to be compatible with our existence as observers. Perhaps the Universe really is, as Haldane said, ‘queerer than we can suppose’.


@TedNield @geoscientistmag