Monday, October 24, 2011

The world in a grain of sand

It starts in a low-ceilinged workman's cottage in a Cumbrian village; a truckle bed by the door, the air pungent with the stench of tallow candles. Or before that, it starts when George Fox comes to preach on Pardshaw Crags, his nasal Leicestershire accent dragged away by the westerly winds, his apothecary's stare over slim spectacles offering a judgement on them all, a judgement more kindly, more theirs than any offered by the purple-cassocked parsons in their oak-lined vicarages. John's parents heard Fox preach and were convinced; they knew that the old religions had had their day.

As Friends, they could move in a different social orbit; not one normally open to a linen weaver and his wife. They could pass the time of day with the likes of Elihu Robinson, a great flaneur of the village with his buckled shoes and silver-topped cane. Here was a man who was a seeker in more than one sense of the word; open to new ideas, open to the new science. He was one of a group of local amateur astronomers who had observed the transit of Venus in 1761; he was willing to debate the way in which the world was made, to question its natural laws.
And he saw something special in young John, too; a boy with an agile brain, a natural thirst for knowledge. It was Robinson who took him to the Quaker school in Pardshaw, who prompted his learning with questions and experiences, who stirred the idea that the weather was something that could be studied and understood, not something we endured in our gruff Cumbrian way. Before his mid-teens, John had opened his own impromptu school in the family home, was teaching the boys and girls of the village to read and write, propped on his knee.
John Dalton was another who saw the world in different ways; he questioned the way in which things were. He is best known for his postulation of the existence of atoms; a piece of wild supposing that could not be proved for over a hundred years. From John Dalton's colour-blind grapplings to explain why water vapour and gas could co-exist, we have Roentgen and Mendeleev, from them, we have Albert Einstein, and from Einstein, Niels Bohr and the structure of the atom. From Bohr, the causal chaos of history brings us, via Rutherford and Thomson, to Robert Oppenheimer, to the Manhattan project and New Mexico desert, from the unleashing of the power we would never learn to control.
And thus, eventually, to the 1.3 tonnes of Plutonium stored in open ponds at the Sellafield site, twenty miles upwind from the low-ceilinged cottage in Eaglesfield. I watch the long queues of traffic streaming towards Sellafield each morning, and I am haunted by Robert Oppenheimer's comments on the first nuclear test carried out in New Mexico in 1945:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”

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