In an ecumenical move (since abandoned), our university promotions committee used to include staff from the sciences and the humanities. This was strangely unsettling as I was once asked to debate the comparative virtues of someone who had published on transgender in transnational literature and a man who had set himself to annihilate the positron, as far as I knew a blameless particle. Was I to favour the faculty member who needed nothing more than a piece of paper, a pen and a strange addiction to the prefix “trans-“, or a man who needed complex and expensive equipment using a fair percentage of the national grid (even if it was someone else’s national grid since science had long since outstripped the resources of our failing economy)?
The great thing about science is that you get to spend large sums of money - and if big is good, bigger is better. In science, it seems, size does matter, as matter has mass if not size. You think the Large Hadron Collider is big? There are already plans for a Larger Hadron Collider. Presumably, the next step is the Really Colossal Hadron Collider. Predictably, the Very Large Telescope in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is to be superseded by the Extremely Large Telescope.
Presumably in one of these alternative universes floppy disks are actually floppy, Elvis is still alive and David Cameron is president of the Unite union
Also, in science, negative results can be as significant as positive ones. In the arts I am made to feel a wastrel if I ask for a paperclip and there would be no mileage in my declaring that I had discovered that reading Ulysses was a waste of time.
I read my books in Norwich. Renowned geneticist Steve Jones studies snails but, being a scientist, only those in Hawaii. Scientists are also able to get away with wild inventions that would shame mere novelists who, indeed, are anyway prone to stealing scientific ideas as scientists, in thrall to science fiction, try to create actual phasers and teleport if not Klingons then the odd molecule. How about string theory, a theory of everything? It posits between 10 and 26 extra dimensions of space time, in only some of which does toast fall butter side up.
One of the many theories that cosmologists amuse themselves with as they get paid for asking the question we all do in the middle of the night - “What’s it all about?” - is that our Universe is one of countless parallel universes in which parallel versions of ourselves exist. They get grants for this. Presumably in one of these universes floppy disks are actually floppy, Elvis is still alive and David Cameron is president of the Unite union. On the other hand, there are times when our Universe can seem strange enough as it is.
As I was being driven to a conference venue in the US recently, I asked my student driver what she was studying. “Mortuary science,” she replied - something of a conversation stopper.
“Why did you choose that?” I asked. “I want to meet people,” she said. “But they are dead,” I pointed out. “Oh, not those,” she said, “the others.” Apparently, there is nothing quite like dead bodies to bring people together.
I once flew to Florida to interview Isaac Bashevis Singer, an American Nobel prizewinner so unknown to most of his fellow countrymen that when the award was announced in 1978, the Los Angeles Times greeted the news with the headline, “Pole Wins Nobel”. On the way back to New York after the interview, the woman sitting next to me saw one of Singer’s books on my lap. Leaning over, she said, “anti-Semitic”, jabbing her finger at the book, which, like his others, had originally been written in Yiddish by a man who had lost family in the Holocaust. To deflect the attack I asked if she was travelling alone. “No,” she said, “I’m with my husband.” “Where is he?” I asked, thinking I could swap seats with him to everyone’s advantage. She pointed her finger downwards. His coffin, apparently, was in the hold, soon to appear on Carousel Number Three.
In Houston, the Church of the Annunciation has a large poster outside it emblazoned “PREGNANT?”, followed by an advice line. Given that the Annunciation marks the moment when an angel appeared to Mary telling her that her pregnancy would be not the result of man but of God, presumably the advice would be that this explanation can probably only work once. Am I the only person who regards this as odd?
There is a community college in Las Vegas where more than 90 per cent of the students fail to graduate because they discover they can make more money parking cars in the city’s casinos. I probably could, too. Maybe in some alternative universe that is exactly what I am doing: reversing a silver Cadillac into a parking space before being a witness at an actual Elvis wedding.
In Indianapolis, I asked for directions to the nearest bookstore, only to be told that “we don’t have cause to have those”. In the end someone directed me to a triple X bookstore, which, however, seemed to specialise in pictures.
On a trip to New Zealand, land of the Hobbits, I read a newspaper report in The New Zealand Herald that was headlined: “Agony after spider bites trouser snake”. A “trouser snake”, for those not versed in the alternative universe that is the Antipodes, is a penis. The Herald is a major newspaper with the largest circulation of any in the country. In New Zealand, such a headline is apparently regarded as normal, but then again, so is Vegemite in Australia.
Meanwhile, in my alternative universe the positron is protected by law while the prefix “trans-” has been abolished.