LONG before Scotland was Scotland, when the population consisted only of green algae and the Highlands were as dry as Death Valley, a large natural object fell out of space and struck the Earth near where the village of Stoer now stands, in Wester Ross. This incident occured 1.2 billion years ago, but it has only been confirmed in the last few months. “If the same thing happened today,” says planetary geologist Scott Thackrey, “all the trees in Aberdeen would be felled. The trees in Inverness would actually ignite. Most man-made structures would collapse. Everything made of paper would burn. You wouldn’t be safe in Glasgow. But sitting here, we would be vapourised.”
ONE thing never questioned in a pub quiz is the pub quiz itself. Where did it come from? Who held the first one, and when? How has it become such a defining characteristic of British pub culture? Why do UK drinkers in particular seem to accept and enjoy challenges to their capacity for factual recall? What is the point?
THE oldest living thing on the planet is King’s Holly, a bush that has been growing in a Tasmanian river gully for more than 40,000 years. There are bivalve molluscs in Iceland that reach ages over 370. Bowhead whales have been discovered roaming the cold oceans with antique ivory spear points still stuck in their hides, which means these creatures have survived for at least two centuries longer than the pre-industrial sailors who tried to harpoon them.
CONSIDER the brain of Albert Einstein, which wasn’t noticeably bigger than anyone else’s. It was, if anything, slightly smaller than average, weighing in at a comparatively light 1.23 kilograms when removed from Einstein’s skull after his death in 1955. Fellow scientists have since been cutting into neural tissue samples from that brain, looking for the physical roots of genius and finding nothing conclusive. They cannot, as yet, explain why this particular complex of cells generated one of the greatest minds in human history. They haven’t precisely located the source of the “peculiar religious feeling” that Einstein spoke of when contemplating “the mystery of life, and the marvellous harmony manifest in the structure of reality”. But they’re working on it.
THERE WAS a time when people believed that only a virgin – and only females were considered true virgins – could coax a unicorn out of hiding. Like most other folk tales, that legend can now be easily re-read in Freudian terms. Seven centuries of secular thought and medical science have discounted, if not discredited, the idea that sexual inexperience is a source of spiritual power, along with any number of pseudo-biological theories as to how maidenhood manifests itself physically. But virginity has not yet been demythologised. A few still believe in unicorns. Almost everyone still believes in virginity, which is elusive in its own way.
IN THE universe of Doctor Who, all moments in time are occurring simultaneously. The trick is moving back and forth between them. With that in mind, let’s go to Saturday, November 23, 1963, as this curious new programme about an irritable, inscrutable alien gentleman suddenly appears on BBC television, in the space between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury – although most viewers don’t notice at first, distracted by the news of President John F Kennedy’s assassination, which happened only yesterday.
BEFORE STARTING work on His Dark Materials, a trilogy of what he called “science- fantasy” novels, Philip Pullman wrote an alternative Book Of Genesis to rival God’s own creation story. In Pullman’s version, God was nothing more or less than an angel, the first sentient being. He did not make the universe, but told the younger angels that he had, pretending to an authority that he never possessed. When the more liberal of their number rebelled against his dictatorship, they were cast out of heaven. The wisest of them – Sophia, who was not mentioned in the Bible, but later found a place in the Gnostic gospels – tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit purely and simply because it represented knowledge, which could never be a sin.
ON my first morning, I am issued with work gloves and boots, a hardhat, a dust mask, and a red and yellow boiler suit. My team leader Dave Ludvik, being Australian, calls this garment a “onesie”. I already love my onesie, and I will later wear it to jobs that don’t really call for it. Today, Dave says it’s essential, as the two of us will be driving to the “gomi-yama”, or “mountain of rubbish” down at Ishinomaki port, where assorted debris from the great tsunami is still piling up, more than two years after the event.
George Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.
WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.