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Caithness Field Club

How Did It All Begin?
By Don Smith

The weather outside was horrible but I was in a hot bath, letting my mind float wherever it wished. I had just read a book about Galileo and I reflected that he lived in the 16th century, a singularly fruitful period in the development of mankindís understanding of the surrounding world. After pondering on the events of that time I tried to identify other turning points in manís ongoing search for an understanding of the natural world. I noted three others. No doubt, dear reader, you might select more, or less, or different examples. A letter to the editor in time for the next Bulletin would be very welcome.

My timescale spanned the whole period from the time our forebears descended from the trees and then developed an outsize brain, to the present day. My selection of turning points was :-

The use of articulated noises in a structured manner to produce speech; timescale unknown

The meticulous observation and recording of the patterns created by heavenly bodies by the Babylonians, Persians and the Greeks; the birth of astronomy and rational thinking; timescale, roughly 2000 years ago

The beginning of the debate as to why the observed world behaved as it does; timescale 16th century

The discovery of relativity, the sub-atomic world and quantum mechanics. The shattering of the confident Victorian age of science and technology, the inviolable linking of cause and effect timescale from now on.

The term "turning point" is a little misleading as the changes were far from instantaneous. But, viewed from a distance in time, a gentle change of direction can appear to be sharp. In my case, the duration of the periods of change was much smaller than the periods between the changes.

I shall briefly comment on my selection but I will do so in the order of my bath-time musings, namely 2 3,4,1

Turning point 2
As early man became more socially organised, some of them had sufficient time to look about the world, as well as being on the lookout for a meal or a mate or a predator. Rational thought evolved. About 2000 years ago the Babylonians and Persians and their successors, being meticulous observers, noticed recurrent patterns in the night sky. They became the first astronomers and long range explorers. The Greeks thought the circle and sphere were symbols of perfection. The sun, the stars and the moon were therefore, by definition, perfect spheres which moved in perfect circular orbits with the earth at the centre of the celestial sphere. As the Persians and their successors made careful and increasingly accurate measurements they became aware of slight imperfections in these "approximately perfect" circular orbits. To preserve their picture of the world they invoked perfect circles circulating within perfect circles. If you imagine a large wheel with a smaller wheel rotating round it like a gear wheel, a point on the smaller wheel can be made to describe an ellipse and this could be more closely reconciled with their celestial observations. Thus the geocentric model, with ever more wheels within wheels, was incorporated within current religious beliefs. These were sacrosanct and it was a heresy to question them. These beliefs were virtually untested until the 16th century, my next turning point.

Turning point 3
To return to my reading about Galileo, the book was based on the affectionate letters written to him by his daughter who, being illegitimate, was brought up to be a nun. She corresponded copiously with her father, and, being very intelligent, was able to provide staunch support during his persecution. His letters to her have never been found. I was aware of his conflict with the church. It was always an overwhelmingly one-sided contest and Galileo had no option but to concede or be tortured. But I was unaware of the strength of the struggle he put up before bowing to the inevitable.

Galileo was born at a time when he and others began to feel unease with contemporary teaching. This had existed from about 100 BC, my second turning point. They began to conjecture why the observed world behaved as it did and found that the current teaching seemed to be inconsistent with observation. They began to ask questions, questions which in themselves were heretical. It was the time of Descartes who critically questioned his own beliefs, It was also the time of Galileo who had reservations about the contemporary Aristotel/Ptolemy model of the sky, Descartes and Galileo were both very religious men. All his life, Descartes remained convinced that a mathematical and logical approach to the world would ultimately lead to a revelation of Godís purpose. He critically examined each of his own beliefs and discarded, one by one, all those which could not be rigorously proven to be valid. He became depressed when he found he could not find anything which was known with absolute certainty. It led to him make his oft repeated comment "I am thinking (even if the thought itself is erroneous), therefore I am". It was the only irrefutable fact of life that he could identify.

His religious belief never faltered. Towards the end of his life he felt disappointed but hoped that he had made some progress in his search for God. He bequeathed us some exquisite mathematics.

Galileo was also in relentless search for truth as he saw it. He used his development of the telescope to explore the heavens as no-one else had been able to do. He was puzzled to find that Venus seemed to be like our moon as it showed progress from a crescent to a sphere and back to a crescent. It was as though its orbit encircled the sun and not the earth. Jupiter had four satellites which clearly encircled it. Even the sun had spots on it sometimes and not always in the same place. A detailed look at the moon revealed that it had mountains and valleys. Nothing seemed to be perfect. So, while teaching astronomy in his role as professor of mathematics, Galileo used the politically correct and theologically accepted geocentric model but, with his students, quizzically questioned his own teaching of the subject. He continued to observe the heavens and wrote to a fellow mathematician, Keppler, that the astronomical model of the world could be immensely simplified by adopting the concept of the sun being the centre of the universe, as proposed by Copernicus some 50 years earlier.

Galileo was well aware of the tremendous risk he was taking by even considering these views and indeed he was greatly worried by the path his own observations were leading him. His deeply held religious belief would not permit him to reject the earth centred world but his studies clearly revealed discrepancies between observation and theological belief and the dichotomy left him with a troubled mind.

Isaac Newton was born on the day Galileo died. He wrote that his ability to understand the world better than most was because he could stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. I am sure that he had Galileo in mind as one of his mentors. It was an astonishingly fruitful period in the history of thought and marks the third of my turning points.

Turning point 4
Subsequent thinkers married careful observation with conceptual theoretical thinking. They paved the way to the next dramatic development when, during the 20th century, firm beliefs about the fundamental nature of the universe were again profoundly shaken, this time by relativity, quantum mechanics and, above all, the recognition that uncertainty is somehow built into natureís way of dealing with things. Unfortunately some of these modern ideas get beyond me. For example, quantum mechanics has shown experimentally that, under certain conditions, elementary "particles" (or wave functions) can simultaneously exist in two different states.

PICTURES Not Available
Quantum mirage of a cobalt atom

These images, which are beautiful in full colour, were taken at IBMís research centre in California, were obtained from a scanning tunnelling microscope and depict the quantum mirage of a cobalt atom. The two peaks shown in middle of the left hand picture represent the two quantum states. The larger and smaller peaks can be interchanged, like a switch. This opens up the possibility of switching at phenomenal speeds, much, much faster than the most up-to-date computer. It is still only a possibility but it is being pursued energetically and financially supported by the computer industry and, significantly, by the Pentagon. Confused? So am I. Wait till you encounter SchrŲdingerís cat which can be dead and alive at the same time.

It will probably take many years to get a sense of perspective about these developments. Thankfully they are of little consequence to most of us, most of the time. The traditional laws of motion, thermodynamics etc are sufficiently accurate to meet the vast majority of the demands made upon them. However, sub-atomic physics cannot be glossed over. It has spawned information technology in general and computing in particular and look what that has led to. Quantum switching may soon enhance the performance of the best of current "state of the art" computers by an enormous factor. For me the future, as affected by these developments, is beyond the horizon and I cannot see where it is leading Ė I have to guess, and your guess is as good as mine.

Turning Point 1
To regain my equilibrium after these flights of fancy, I looked the other way, backwards in time to my first turning point and a little piece of whimsy. The bath water was topped up from the hot tap and my mind entertained me by wandering further.

How did early man communicate?. They had no TV, internet, e-mail, mobile telephones, mailshots and suchlike. I can imagine the first of them to have had little else to communicate with but grunts. Then I thought of the various ways we can grunt. Now add body language, pointing of fingers, scratching of noses, ears, hairs and other anatomic parts, facial contortions and similar stratagems and I can conjure up quite a vocabulary. How then did speech begin? Surely it must have begun with grunts.

Then I remembered the time, more than 40 years ago, when I joined the Thurso Bridge club and made the acquaintance of Gertie Blyth, Florrie Dunnet, Maggie MacKay, Ann Calder, Charlie Routledge, Chintz and Donker and such worthies I had come from the Middlesex Bridge League where a bid was made in flat terms, conveying no information other than a number and a suit. I was astonished, irritated and finally captivated by the TBC bidding. The quality of a bid could be identified over a wide range, without grunts, but with equally expressive noises.

For example, starting from weakness and proceeding towards strength

Err, um, a club, (spoken very tentatively and gazing heavenwards)

A club (also tentative but with raised eyebrows and gazing in the general direction of partner)

One club? (with the head on one side while partnerís face was intently studied)

Club (spoken firmly with the cards slapped down on the table, and the ceiling studied)

One club (spoken authoritatively, eyes glaring at partner who was too terrified to just pass )

Moreover, individuals used their own bidding dialect..

My initial thinking that this was unfair was soon rectified as we all got to know the code. It was great fun and, being more subtle, it put modern bidding conventions in the shade.

Returning to my comment on grunts and the evolution of communication, I persuaded my wife to conduct our breakfast chat, which is usually a protracted and leisurely conversation, using nothing but a range of grunts and face and finger movements. I expected that we would eventually begin to develop prototype words. It was fun trying, but compressing to a few minutes, something which must have taken thousands of years to develop, proved beyond us.

I need an enthusiastic philology student seeking a PhD thesis. Do you know of one?

It would be interesting to know how it all began. Perhaps in a hot bath.

Published in 2000 Bulletin