Friday, August 17, 2012

Winners and Flat Earths

8.45pm last night. Roshan (our 10-year-old) and I open the back door and stagger into the kitchen, sweaty and tired after an hour of tennis in the 80-degree evening. Roshan heads to the fridge for some grape juice. While he’s chugging it down, he remarks, “I never thought I’d beat you today, Appa. 14-9 after being down 4-9!”
Then after a moment of reflection, he says “I’m not a winner. Winners always expect to win”.

In the bathroom, where I’m washing my face, I pause. That sounds like new material. “Says who?”, I call out. 

“Lewis Timberlake”, he replies. That’s the author of the book he started reading yesterday “Born to Win”, a collection of stories about inspirational characters like Wilma Rudolph.

“What’s a winner, Roshan?”, I probe.

“You know, somebody like Federer, Djokovich, Nadal”.

“You mean somebody with those last names?”

“Of course not. Somebody who reaches their goal in life”.

“Well then, Federer must not be a winner; he still hasn’t won the Olympic gold medal”.

He thinks for a moment. “Somebody who sets a goal and tries hard to make it”.

“Hmm. So they just have to try? They don’t have to actually reach their goal?”

He thinks a bit more. “Well… I know what a failure is. Failures lose once, and then give up”. Then, rather confidently, “You’re not done when you lose. You’re done when you quit”.

“Ooh”, I exclaim, impressed. “Who said that, Lewis Timberlake also?”

“No, that last part I heard in school somewhere. Lewis Timberlake said that thing about failures”. 

“I see”, I say thoughtfully. I’m wondering whether to pursue that any further. But it’s time to go take a shower and get ready for bed, so we head upstairs. The conversation meanders to other topics.

After the shower, while toweling off, he says, somewhat out of the blue, “Mistletoe is a parasite”. 

“Mistletoe?”, I reply in surprise. “I thought it was a plant!” 

“So what? It’s a parasite!”

I’m not convinced. “Really? I thought parasites had to be in the animal kingdom”. 

“No!”, he replies, with an air of supreme confidence. “Plants can be parasites too”.

“How do you know that?” I ask, genuinely curious.

“A kid in school told me”.

“What?! That’s all it takes for you to treat it as the truth?” We’ve been over this before, how he takes something he has heard casually and repeats it like it’s the gospel truth. 

“But it’s not a lie!”, he protests.

“I didn’t say it’s a lie. I’m just asking if you know it’s the truth.”

He changes tack. “You know about facts and opinions, right, Appa? An opinion doesn’t have to be true to be an opinion”.

It’s a red herring. He loves taking contrary positions just to be contrary, tying up people in tangled knots. I ignore the bait. “What makes something true, Roshan?”

Pat comes the answer. “If it’s actually correct. Like back before Copernicus, everybody in the world said the earth was flat, but it wasn’t actually flat”. 

“Well, but what if everybody in the world says it’s flat? Let’s say it’s 1400 now, before Copernicus, or let’s say 1200, well before him. There’s no America. Let’s say we’re in Italy. Or Britain ! They are the big kahunas of the world. King John says the earth is flat. Everybody says “don’t sail out too far; you might fall off the edge of the world!” The Pope says the earth is flat. The Chief Scientist – no, there’s probably no such thing, not much science back then; your fifth-grade teacher says all day long that it’s flat. Everybody you look up to says it’s flat. So is that the truth?”

Roshan is clear. “No, it’s not, because we know the earth is round!”

“But that’s because you’re in 2012! Remember, we’re back in 1200. No airplanes, no astronauts taking pictures of the earth from the Space Station. You climb up the tallest tower around, and you see a horizon, and so you climb down and tell everybody the earth is flat. Nobody knows the earth is round! It’s a few more centuries before Columbus and Vasco da Gama and Magellan do their thing”. 

“But even if EVERYBODY says the earth is flat doesn’t MAKE it flat.”

“True, but that was the Truth in 1200!”

“But that was not actually correct. Are you saying the earth was flat then and became round now?” We talk about truth versus actual. We can't settle on precise definitions. Then another angle occurs to him.”What if everybody in the world says 2+2=5? Or they all say “I’m the Queen of England”. Does that make it the truth?“

By now we’re lounging on the bed. Rithvik pops into the room occasionally to confirm that this is not an argument threatening to become a tantrum. We go over examples of statements that can be verified or reasoned by personal experience (2+2=5, the bed is rock hard, I’m the Queen of England) , and some that can’t (e=m*c^3, electrons have a positive charge). I mention how today, despite all the advanced physics theory and technology we have available, all the Hubble space telescopes and Large Hadron Colliders and everything, we have explanations for only 4% of the observable mass in the universe. That means we are missing about 24 universes right now. It boggles his mind for a bit. “What do you mean universes? What does the end of the universe look like? Does it have walls or something?”

“Hah. That’s a whole ‘nuther question, Roshan. So instead of that, let’s think this way. What do you know as the truth today - the actual, correct truth? You know, like back in 1200, the earth was flat.”

He can’t come up with one off hand when asked in that manner. So I suggest some. “In 2600, there’s going to be a dad telling his son “can you believe that back in 2012 people actually used to think that the earth was a round ball traveling in space around the sun, with 8 other planets like it?””

Then Sowmya comes into the room and reminds us of the time. Reluctantly we break off. 
But I have a feeling we’ll be resuming this discussion pretty soon.

Indeed, what are things around us that we take for granted today but will astonish future generations ?

1 comment:

  1. Sree, what a great post. I love the dynamic that you and Roshan have established and how playfully and easily you roll through ideas and concepts that many would think challenging.

    That's not to mention content of the discussion. Buddy, can you paradigm.



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