Looking at my recent blog essays I have come to the conclusion (that many of my more prescient readers had arrived at long ago) that I have been taking myself too seriously lately. And after a full independent analysis (conducted by myself of course) that took five minutes and unfortunately, was not costed by Treasury or vetted by the Productivity Commission, I have reached a momentous conclusion. (You will note from the assiduously thorough and transparent processes I am contemplating a life in politics. And of course there currently seems a dearth of talent available for ministerial positions.) And what was the conclusion I reached – namely, that I think too much!
Now, to the relief of my Christian friends, I don’t mean this in the Buddhist sense. Whilst Buddhists understand the need to quieten the mind, it is largely the incessant mind-talk they seek to still (referred derogatorily as “monkey mind”) not intellectual pursuit.
My problem seems to be, that even in this latter stage of life, I am still intrigued to understand the world, to understand better why things are the way they are, what is the meaning of life and so on.
I am for example, intrigued by the notion of “dark matter” and “dark energy”. The problem was well articulated by the comedian Flacco talking to Robin Williams on the “Science Show.”
“A question I often ask myself is this; does dark matter matter? It is said that at least 90% of the energy in the universe is dark, so I’d like to light a little shed on the matter…no, sorry, shed a little light on the matter. Now, what is this matter made of? Well, when the universe was young it was smooth and featureless. Ah, weren’t we all! Some suspect that dark matter was made of neutrinos. It is a fact that more than 50 trillion neutrinos pass through the human body every second. It’s a good thing they don’t itch! But it would take a lot of neutrinos to make up the mass of dark matter.
Others propose this matter is made up of black holes, but how do you fill empty space with holes? It makes no sense. You’d have nothing but a big hole in the whole hole, and lumps of nothing travelling at the speed of light is still nothing, it’s just the speed of light moving around. We should be looking for objects moving at the speed of dark. So instead of looking for them we should be listening for them, because obviously, stumbling around in the dark, they will have evolved phrases like ‘excuse me’, ‘pardon me’, ‘my mistake’, ‘didn’t see you there’.
You see, I firmly believe the entire universe is filled with common courtesy moving at the speed of dark. So what we need is to set up something akin to a giant Hubble microphone in space to pick up the ‘pardon mes’ of all this dark matter colliding with itself. But then, apart from all this speculation, at the end of the day…well, it gets dark. And at the end of the universe it is proposed that, depending on the fabric of this dark matter, the universe will either dwindle away into an eternal emptiness or compact into a big crunch. Either way, that should put an end to the matter.”
Obviously I don’t have the intellectual capacity of Flacco, but just like him I am inordinately drawn to want to understand these things.
I probably should have woken up to myself earlier. I mean all the signs were there. To begin with I found it hard to have a conversation in social settings. At functions I would gravitate towards little groups with glass of wine in hand and try to join their conversations But I found their discourse most confusing. I began to doubt my own intelligence when I couldn’t answer seemingly simple questions like, “Did you see what they cooked on the show last night? Did you think Jenny’s fricasseed rhubarb and watermelon had the same piquancy as Brian’s squid and artichoke soufflé?” When they would probe by asking, “Didn’t you watch the show last night?” and I in my ignorance responded, “No – I was reading the latest Stephen Hawking book,” the group would grow quiet and I would suddenly find a deal more physical (not to mention psychological) space between us!
When working in the office, and the others broke for coffee and gathered to have a chat I would surreptitiously read a few pages of Nietzsche and stop to ponder on its meaning. That too should have sounded the alarm bells – thinking alone is said to be symptomatic of thinking addiction.
An early clue that I’d got in with the wrong crowd happened thirty years ago. I had been managing power stations for about fifteen years and decided to improve my management education. I had been sent previously to a management course run by the Australian Institute of Management and completed a Kepner Tregoe course in decision making, neither of which had impressed me greatly. So I began to read widely which seemed to help, even though the material that was most useful didn’t come from the management literature. Then I came across a little book by Ken Blanchard called The One Minute Manager. What I liked about the One Minute Manager was that when people went to see him in his office he never appeared to be busy, but was generally found serenely looking out his office window – thinking! When I gave the book to a colleague to read he returned it, somewhat exasperated, with these comments. “I think you are misguided if you follow this example. You’ve got to be seen to be doing things – otherwise your boss will think you don’t have enough to do. As a result he will either give you more work or reduce your support staff!” Thinking, apparently, in at least some management circles, is not seen as adding value as much as shuffling paper or whatever other “make-work” subterfuge you might indulge in.
(It is probably no surprise then, when recently I saw a book advertised in the management book list titled Do Nothing I had to rush out and buy a copy!)
Whilst I admit my curiosity, I am not curious about detail. Knowing what is the twentieth decimal place in pi holds not the slightest bit of interest. But I am intrigued by the fact that pi is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients! And you see there is the problem – how is it possible to have an intelligent discussion about such issues? How can such a conversation compete with who should win the logies or whether Julia Gillard should dye her hair!
I like to be stimulated to think outside the box. For example an exam question I once encountered asked that I should “define the universe and give three examples!” Now that gets you thinking!
Some people just seem to have a knack of coming at things differently. Someone once told me they thought that mankind’s greatest discovery was the thermos flask. This obviously astounded me. The thermos flask? How could that compare with the discovery of the human genome, the Theory of Relativity, the electron microscope, Quantum Theory and so on? I was intrigued enough to ask the question:
“What do you find so clever about the thermos flask?”
“Well it keeps hot things hot and cold things cold.”
“Yes I understand that. But why is that so special?”
“But how does it know?”
How does it know? And it is this sort of tangential thinking that informs the humour of the Flaccos and the Spike Milligans of the world. (I still believe that the three geniuses of the Twentieth Century were Albert Einstein, Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov!)
I have now been told that I think too much. And some things don’t bear thinking about.
Let’s consider the physical universe. Kary Mullis (Nobel laureate) had this to say:
“Time and space don’t really count for much in the inferno of the very small things that we now think are fundamental. Nobody who is sane understands what is going on down at the level where the fundamental things like quarks and electrons do not have any volume or any position. If you can understand something with zero volume and no position, then welcome to insanity.”
Or perhaps we should look at the world organically as Ernest Becker did in Escape from Evil.
“The basic human condition is that man is first and foremost an animal moving about on a planet shining in the sun, whatever else he is, is built on this ….. The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theatre for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.
At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact and appendages with which to acquire food. Existence for all organismic life is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle , a science fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts filled with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste of excrement as they move along in search of more flesh.”
Being assailed by material like this I started to think that I am thinking too much and indeed, I must admit, I probably have a thinking problem.
Well after some nagging from my wife (who has declared she has no interest whatsoever in what the meaning of life is) I went to my Doctor and admitted my addiction. She was optimistic. She said that admitting I had the problem went a long way towards being able to address it rationally.
I must confess that I had difficulty, initially, in following her instructions for a program to put aside this accursed affliction. It was a really challenging remedy. She said that I should watch four hours of soap opera every week and read the Courier Mail every day.
But I think it is starting to work. I haven’t been able to complete the cryptic crossword or finish the Sudoku for some weeks now. But probably the most telling indicator that I am getting over thinking, is that I had a pollster ring me and ask who I would vote for at the Federal election and I unhesitatingly answered “The Greens”.