Sunday, September 24, 2006

Reading Science CAN be fun

Over the past few weeks, my reading has taken me into some strange and unaccustomed places. When I was in Melbourne, I found myself in the Mathematics Library of the University of Melbourne, looking at Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics (or to be really uppity, Principia Mathematica) as well as other texts which from their very beginning were simply a sequence of unfamiliar symbols. I have also been looking at writing by and about Einstein, which has been more or less incomprehensible. None of these authors, however, offer the delights to be had from reading J W Dunne's An Experiment With Time (1929).

A lot of the early part of the book is taken up with anecdotal accounts of how he would have some very vivid dream or other, and then have an event in real life which corresponded so closely to what he had dreamt that it could not be dismissed as coincidence. We have all had dreams, or at least thoughts pop into our heads, of someone we have not seen for a long time, only to have that person show up just round the corner. For years, I have been using this to say that events create ripples, not memories, so that they can actually be "remembered" in advance.

Mr Dunne develops a rather large theory to explain all of this, but not before making the following rather charming confession:
No one, I imagine, can derive any considerable pleasure from the supposition that he is a freak; and, personally, I would almost sooner have discovered myself to be a 'medium'. There might have been a chance of company there. Unfortunately, it was abundantly clear that there was no 'mediumship' in this matter, no 'sensitiveness', no 'clairvoyance'. I was suffering, seemingly, from some extraordinary fault in my relation to reality, something so uniquely wrong that it compelled me to perceive, at rare intervals, large blocks of otherwise perfectly normal personal experience displaced from their proper position in Time.
After conducting several tests on his friends and relations and finding that he was not in fact alone, he then starts to generate his theory. I had to laugh: at one point, he tries his theories out on himself by taking a book, concentrating on it closely and in so doing trying to form mental images of its contents. He does very well on his first attenpt: it "was a gorgeous success - until I discovered I had read the book before".

In trying to talk of relativity of time, he quotes from a letter he has received ("From the windows of our railway carriage we see a cow glide past at fifty miles an hour, and remark that the creature is enjoying a rest") and says:
This is an illustration which pleases in more ways than one; and I regret to have to interrupt the reader's contemplation thereof in order to direct his attention to a paicture painted in less enticing colours. But we have to get on.
As do I.


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