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Cruiskeen Lawn August 3rd, 1942

Cruiskeen Lawn August 3rd, 1942

This is another one for Maths Week.

It’s slightly preachier in tone than most of the early columns, but characteristically it implies that Myles is one of the 100 people who could explain the theory of relativity, even if hes not inclined to do so on this occasion. The Arthur Eddington mentioned was a British physicist and populariser of science who, via the “Eddington number”, purported to calculate the number of protons in the observable universe.  “THERE ARE less than a thousand people in the world who really understand the Einstein theory of relativity, and less than a hundred people who can discuss it intelligently.” This disturbing statement was made recently by Sir Arthur Eddington. It is nice news for those of us who have to fork out every year to maintain our grandiose university establishments. We have perhaps 30 or 40 well-paid savants whom we have always taken to know all about physics or mathematics or whatever kindred subject they profess. Now we are told that these people know nothing about Einstein’s discoveries, and cannot make head or tail of his sums.

What would we say if a similar situation obtained in relation to, say, plumbers? “There are less than a thousand plumbers in the world who really understand how to mend a leaking tap, and less than a hundred who can discuss the subject intelligently.” That would be bad, but not at all so bad as this relativity mess, because leaking taps constitute only one (water-tight if you like) compartment of plumbing practice, and complete ignorance in regard to it does not necessarily impair the plumber’s competence when he is faced with a ruptured cistern; whereas Einstein’s discoveries entail the radical revision of conventional concepts of time, space, and matter, and a person who undertakes to discourse on such subjects while ignorant of Einstein, must necessarily rely on premisses shown to be inadmissible: he must, therefore, he talking through his stetson. It is now accepted everywhere without much show of reserve that the earth is a sphere, but these university professors I am talking about are still (in a relative sense) teaching their students that it is flat. That is a fair and perfect analogy, because there is practically no limit to the mistakes you will make if the flatness of the earth is your fundamental credo, and you will fare no better if you choose to make pronouncements on the nature of the universe as if Einstein never existed.

What exactly is Einstein’s theory? Why should I waste my time trying to explain? I am not paid to do so. And if, as an inquiring taxpayer, you think the people in the universities should try to tell you, be assured now that they cannot, because they are as wise about it as yourself. They may offer you a nice line in algebra or astronomical trigonometry instead, but nothing at all about your man Einstein. That subject is barred. As the brother would say, Einstein’s very HARRD, but he’s very INTERESSTIN’. We can, however, remedy this shameful situation if we have vision and courage. Take chess. In this country we have no real chess players and when the few poor tryers we have go abroad they are not even permitted to look on at the masters’ games. They are given boards and men to keep them quiet in some obscure 3B category that is reserved for the riff-raff. Most of the masters are Russian, and that is because chess is taught in the Russian national schools. Could we not make a start by teaching Einstein’s theory in our own national schools? Make it compulsory and have it taught through Irish. Probably we would have a lot of squealing about compulsory relativity and the side-splitting joke about children being illiterate in two languages would be altered to read “illiterate in four dimensions.” But that would not matter. We could be sure that some time or other somebody in this country would understand the theory and probably know how to discuss it intelligently. A committee of national teachers might even produce a weighty report on such a departure in education. “Johnnie, if you don’t put away those quaternions and go and feed the pigs, I will tell your father about you.”

To celebrate the work of Myles na gCopaleen, The Irish Times will print one of his Cruiskeen Lawn columns each day during October

The Irish Times - Frank McNally
21 Deireadh Fómhair 2011

The Irish Times - Frank McNally

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