The Documents in the Case

Page numbers are from my Avon paperback as usual.

Letter 5, page 21

page 23
Jix had his eye on me and opened all my letters

Sir William Joynson-Hicks was the very model of a modern Tory Home Secretary: a Communist-basher and guardian of public morals. "He was in his element rushing the police around to seize sinister documents (including on one occasion a copy of the Holy Bible) from some branch of the then insignificant Communist Party" according to David Low, who lampooned him mercilessly in his cartoons—and grew rather to like the man, without ceasing to mock him. He was also a leader in extending full voting rights to women in 1928. Go figure.

Letter 6, page 24

page 24
truly run after

Like Old Man Kangaroo in Just So Stories.

the latest Michael Arlen

Lady Susan and Ann Hilgeman have filled us in on Mr. Arlen, a popular novelist, author of `The Green Hat, a "spicy" novel about a lady who is more sinned against than sinning, Iris March(?)', as well as These Charming People, and the screenplays for both.

In The Green Hat some fashionable Mayfair types meet untimely ends seeking Purity. This matter was later investigated by Sherlock Holmes in a bizarre triple-barreled parody "The Rollo Boys with Sherlock in Mayfair; or, Keep It Under Your Green Hat", which appears in Three Rousing Cheers for the Rollo Boys by Corey Ford. While this doesn't count as a Sherlock Holmes reference in DLS, it does take us to a Sherlockian parody so obscure that it didn't make it into The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes.

page 26
Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner; tout pardonner, c'est tout embêter

The first part, to the semicolon, is attributed to Madame de Stael. The rest is Munting's comment.

Charis has translated it nicely: "To understand all is to forgive all; to forgive all (i.e. everyone) is to be a nuisance to all (i.e. everyone)." My version was "To understand all is to forgive all; to forgive everything is to annoy everybody." In any case, Dorothy2 has pointed out that the French is not very good.

The actual quote from de Stael (according to a footnote in Walter Hooper's edition of the letters of C. S. Lewis, p. 475) is "Tout comprendre rend très indulgen"; i.e., makes one very indulgent.

Letter 7, page 25

page 26 the Wedding Guest, we could not choose but hear.

The Wedding Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

page 27
I'm a man of peace, I am

Richard Kitchen accounted for this one: from "Captain Margaret" by John Masefield (1908),

'I'll approve of it when we're safe home again, and the ship's accounts passed. Now, Mr. Perrin, I'm a man of peace, I am. I don't uphold going in for trouble. There's trouble enough on all men's tallies. But what you're going to do beats me.'

Letter 8, page 28

page 28

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 - 1944), famous physicist, pillar of the British scientific Establishment, and one of the great popularizers of science. Whether the origin of life is to be seen as a highly probable event or a highly improbable one remains controversial. In fact, as the century turns (or has just turned or will turn, I don't give a damn) it is amusing to see just how little progress has been made on the grand issues that concern the witty characters in the book. Not (as we'll see) that the Vicar would be much surprised.

Letter 8, page 28

page 30
large lumps of space, loosely tied together with electricity

A fine description of matter as it was understood to be when atoms consisted of a tiny nucleus circled at a relatively large distance by electrons, which somehow bound themselves also to nearby atoms, holding the whole thing together. Today, however, the nucleus is surrounded not by empty space with some electrons zipping about in specific orbits, but by a fuzzy buzzy blur of probabilities: the probability of finding an electron in each specific place if you look there. This may not seem much better, but it does allow some people to understand why the electrons cause atoms to stick together in molecules.

page 31
spike from Keble

An exceedingly High-Church churchman—practically a Roaming Catholic, in a phrase from elsewhere in the Corpus—from Keble College, Oxford: an institution founded for the propagation of High Church faith. John Keble (1792 - 1866) was a founder of the Oxford Movement and delivered the sermon that was said to have been its origin.

Letter 13, page 39

page 40
had read Jeans and Japp

Sir James Jeans (1887 - 1946) was a contemporary of Eddington and also a writer of popular science; his approach was considered rather more mystical than Eddington's, by some people who didn't approve of it.

Japp has been identified by Lady Susan:

Francis R. Japp, an organic chemist from the University of Aberdeen, co-discoverer of the Japp-Klingemann reaction. He flourished some years before this. The reaction was written up in 1888 and the only book I could find for him was in 1905.

Letter 15, page 43

page 44
my "operculum"

An operculum is a small opening. Did he mean opusculum, a little work? Perhaps this error is to show the imperfect classical education of the engineer; it's a natural sort of mistake, since oper- is the basis of all the other forms of the Latin opus, or work. An odd mistake, though, for one with a knowledge of descriptive biology, in which opercula are common.

Or maybe it's Harrison's little joke.

Or maybe it's just a misprint in this edition.

Letter 23, page 59

page 59
O si sic omnes

Oh, if everyone were like that!

Letter 27, page 65

page 65
The King's English

So's the Queen! Ha ha. But Fowler's fine guide to English usage is still in print, or was a few years ago, and is well worth reading. Any American who wants to know the true usage of Will and Shall needs to read Fowler's comprehensive and lucid treatment in order to understand the complete impossibility of the quest, for one not raised in England, or possibly just the southeast of England.

page 66
Printers have persecuted me

Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word.
--Psalms 119:161
Dorothy2 has identified the misquote as a misprint in the "Printer's Bible" of the 17th century.

Letter 28, page 68

page 69
Harpagus-feast of boiled baby

In The Histories of Herodotus, Harpagus was the man whom Astyages assigned to kill Cyrus (his grandson) because of a prophetic dream of Cyrus overshadowing all Asia. Harpagus could not stand to murder him, and handed him off to a shepherd to do the evil deed, and (what else would happen in one of these standard legends?) the shepherd adopted the boy instead of killing him. Naturally, when Cyrus was a boy, he started acting as if he were king, because that was in his Blood, and he got in trouble for behaving unlike a shepherd's son, and Astyages learned the truth. What else could poor Astyages do but cook Harpagus' son and serve him to Harpagus for dinner?

The son was 13 years old, not a baby.

Cooking people's kids and serving them for dinner seems to have been a popular idea in Greece. In the house of Atreus it was one of the great family traditions. (Did I just hear Hamlet say something about honoring traditions?) The Trojan Women cooked up something of the sort, and maybe there are others.

Sayers wrote a fine essay about prophecies and the always vain attempts to beat them, "Oedipus Simplex". I believe it appears in Unpopular Opinions.

Poul Anderson wrote a science fiction story in his Time Patrol series, in which the true story of Cyrus comes out. As I recall, the obvious phoniness of the Herodotus story calls a twentieth-century investigator's attention to something that turns out to be a much deeper matter and a possible upsetting of the course of history. Anyway,

Letter 30, page 71

page 71
Is thy servant a tripe-hound that he should do this thing?

Dian de Momerie supplied this one:

And Hazael said, Why weepeth my lord? And he [Elisha] answered, Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strong holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child.
And Hazael said, But what, is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?
--II Kings 12-13

page 72
There was a young student from Caius...

We may infer that Caius is pronounced Keys. And of course St. Bartholomews Hospital is known as Bart's. The inspiration for this effort may have been the classic exploitation of Sarum as the old name for Salisbury, along with Hants as the abbreviation for Hampshire:

There was a young curate of Salisbury
Whose manners were quite halisbury-scalisbury.
He ran around Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till his vicar compelled him to walisbury.

Letter 31, page 73

page 75
when the last atom of energy has been shaken out of the disintegrating atom

The reference is to the heat death of the universe, as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics, when the stars have used all their fuel, and everything has cooled down to a uniform grayness, and nothing can happen. Modern cosmology does not necessarily accept this outcome, but what is in its place is uncertain. We'll hear more on such matters at the dinner party later in the book.

Letter 37, page 81

page 81
wiser in their generation than the children of sweetness and light.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
-- Luke 16:8
This is commingled with Jonathan Swift's phrase "sweetness and light" describing what we get from bees (remember beeswax candles). Matthew Arnold picked up the phrase for the first chapter of Culture and Anarchy (1882). And,
Sweetness and light, sweetness and light,
Making each little thing shining and bright.
In times of destruction, of horror, of war,
Sweetness and light -- Oh, I've said that before.
as the California Pelican, the UC Berkeley humor magazine of many years ago, used to say in its end-of-book column "Sweetness and Light".

page 83
Bayswater was ... far enough out to be healthy suburban.

Bayswater is north of Kensington Gardens, west of Paddington Station and little more than a mile from Baker Street. Nothing could better illustrate the lack of common ground between the concept of "suburban" in 1930s England and that in fin-de-siecle America.

page 96
Hoc est corpus ... hocus-pocus

Hocus-pocus is supposedly a burlesque of the words "Hoc est corpus" (This is the body [of Christ]) in the Mass. The OED, however, says that this is just conjecture, not backed by any good evidence.

Letter 41, page 105

page 105
in him Nature's copy's not eterne

MACBETH: O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!
Thou know'st that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives.

LADY MACBETH: But in them nature's copy's not eterne.
-- Macbeth, Act III scene ii

Letter 43, page 109

page 110
The Sacred Flame

A play by Somerset Maugham, 1928. Does anyone know anything about it? Though the phrase is a common one (do a Web search if you doubt it), the title probably alludes to Coleridge:

All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.

Letter 45, page 112

page 112
circumbendible lane

This word, though it sounds like Edward Lear, is from the jocular coinage "circumbendibus", which comes from Latin circum (around) and English bend and the ablative plural ending -ibus. Even stranger is that this bit of labored Victorian humor actually dates back to 1681.

page 116
Newton Abbot

An actual town in Devon, something less than 20 miles southwest of Exeter and near the eastern edge of Dartmoor.

Teigngrace, Heathfield, Brimley Halt, Bovey Tracy

The first two are actual places that can be found on maps; Vamping the SCR informs me that Brimley Halt was a stop on the Great Western Railways Moretonhampstead branch line from Newton Abbot, which line closed in 1959. Bovey Tracy, reached at the end of the half-hour journey, is about five miles northwest of Newton Abbot.

page 117
"Vous l'avez voulu, Georges Dandin"

Haviland Martin informs us,

You asked for it, George Dandin (from Molière's Georges Dandin, ou le Mari Confondu of 1668. The peasant Dandin marries above his station and, cuckolded out of his pretty young wife, repeatedly mutters this phrase. It has become a way of saying, 'you've only got yourself to blame for what you're complaining about'.)

Letter 46, page 129

page 130
digging a pit for himself to fall into

The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken.
--Psalms 9:15
We saw this also in Busman's Honeymoon.

something in Latin about when God wishes to destroy anybody...

Quem deus vult perdere prius dementat (Anonymous). But Euripides said it in Greek, presumably earlier; and Lycurgus beat him to it by about 400 years.

Letter 47, page 132

page 132
George Harrison, aged 56

A year before, Harrison had written to his son Paul on the occasion of the latter's 36th birthday, mentioning that he had married Paul's mother when he was 20. Hmmm. If he married her at 20, then that was 36 years ago; yet their son was born more than 36 years ago.

Letter 51, page 190

page 195
inorganic stuff

Words change their meaning. Organic chemistry deals with carbon compounds, specifically those which have a carbon-carbon bond, regardless of their source. Today, distinguishing organic from inorganic according to whether the material is derived from living things is the mark of certain schools of thought in agriculture and nutrition, not chemists.


Muscarine affects the parasympathetic nervous system by interfering with some acetylcholine receptors. In English, nerves controlling some vital functions lose the ability to communicate.

Here's a nice abstract: STEREOSPECIFIC SYNTHESIS OF (+)-MUSCARINE FROM D-GLUCOSE, SUITABLE FOR PREPARATION OF 5-SUBSTITUTED ANALOGUES at Use this stuff, and the polarimeter won't catch you. Note, though, that they started with an optically active material. (More on the latter a bit later.)

Current opinion appears to be that muscarine exists in Amanita muscaria in quantities too small to produce poisoning; furthermore, that the symptoms of A muscaria poisoning are different from those of muscarine poisoning. See, e.g.,

Worse yet: atropine, an antidote for muscarine, is not helpful in cases of A. muscaria poisoning, and may be harmful:

heating ethene oxide with triethylamine

The first is ethylene oxide (formerly ethene oxide, alias epoxyethane). The second surely ought to be trimethylamine, with an m: choline is constructed of methyl groups, not ethyl. (Miss Martin has kindly confirmed the methyl, adding, "The entire synthesis is bogus according to my spouse the organic synthetic chemist. And the formula for muscarine is way wrong. It can't possibly be C5 H15 NO3. After trying to draw it a few times, we surrendered and looked it up. The correct formula is C9 H19 O2 N.")

oxidise it with dilute nitric acid

This must be a great oversimplification. To get muscarine you need to put a 5-member ring structure where choline has a single carbon (CH2OH). You can't do that by oxidation. Cf. Miss Martin's comment above. In fact (I think I got this from Brabazon's biography) the synthesis is necessarily bogus, as no synthesis for muscarine was known at the time.

page 196
Nature's only a rather clumsy kind of chemist

Our graduate student is inclined to rather an undergraduate sort of dismissiveness, don't you think? Pretty soon some experts in an after-dinner bull session will give us a very different view of life's chemical abilities. And seventy years later, chemists use enzymes for many functions (including steps in the analysis of DNA) that simply are not feasible by any other known methods. Clumsy, indeed!

Rossum's Universal Robots

This play by the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890 - 1938) is the source of the word Robot, which students of Russian will recognize as derived from a Slavic root for work. He also wrote The Makropolis Affair, which was made into an opera by Janacek and is still in the repertoire. His last work, I believe, was about an unsuccessful struggle against a fascist society; it is odd that it did not have a revival several years ago, its title being War with the Newts.

(I can't write the man's name correctly because HTML, according to the O'Reilly book I'm consulting, has no representation for the C wearing a hat—which A Queer Deep Voice has identified as a caron. Shame on the W3C.)

Letter 52, page 199

page 199
Brutus-like sentiment

The reference could be to Marcus Junius Brutus, who felt obliged to assassinate his friend and benefactor Julius Caesar; or to his forebear Lucius Junius Brutus (6th century BC), who condemned his own sons to death for treason. Or to both of them.

page 199
to invite me to dinner

Here we get into the notorious after-dinner conversation. Advisory: This discussion may be hazardous to your mental health, or at least to your program of therapy for narcolepsy. I am going to pontificate on the science in that conversation, and how it relates to what is now known or understood or believed or speculated. I shall try to avoid what is sometimes called Whig history: the attitude that people were really unreasonable for not knowing what we know today.

Discussion of all this can easily broaden into piffle; nonetheless, I consider the validity of the DOCU's science to be entirely on topic. And if I've taken a Whiggish attitude, or if I've failed in clear exposition of the points and anyone cares, comments are in order.

page 201
Beef, noise, the Church, vulgarity, and beer

Darling Bungie gives us the tantalizing reference
"Five things these Chestertonian youths revere: Beef, noise, the Church, vulgarity and beer!"
-- Anonymous

kept the progs busy

The proctors, in charge of keeping order at the university.

page 202
ill-informed rubbish about splitting the atom

And I suppose it was ill-informed, as atom-splitting on any large or useful scale was still a few years away. Rubbish, though? It was, we now know, only a few years till nuclear fission was all too real. But if Hoskyns seems hyper-conservative here, he's in good company.

In September of 1933, well after the DOCU dinner party, Lord Rutherford (an immortal in physics: the man who discovered the atomic nucleus, the splitting of which is at issue here) addressed the Solvay Conference. In the middle of his address on recent discoveries in nuclear physics, he dismissed talk of getting energy out of nuclear effects, because although there was plenty of energy there, it couldn't be extracted efficiently. The term he used for talk of releasing practical amounts of energy from the nucleus was not "ill-informed rubbish" but the more succinct "moonshine".

Rutherford's comments appeared in The Times  of September 12, 1933. The young and unknown Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who had got out of Berlin when Hitler took over, read this in his hotel in Bloomsbury and found it quite annoying. He took a walk and thought about things. While he was waiting at a red light at Southampton Row, he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction.

The description of this epiphany that Szilard gave in Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts: Selected Recollections & Correspondence is not entirely clear about the location; but those wishing to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the modern world could stand across the street from the Imperial Hotel, where he had been staying at that time, and wait for the red light there.

Szilard's insight came five years before uranium fission was discovered. Getting back to the subject, we see that Lathom was wrong once again: the life-and-death issue of the rest of the century didn't start in bourgeois suburban Bayswater, but—where else?—in Bloomsbury!

page 203
those eight [sic] on whom the tower of Siloam fell

Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?
--Luke 13:4

the ancestral bird-form ... the trilobites

These are strange things to find in what is otherwise a tracing back of our own ancestry—and by a biologist, no less. How prophetic he would have looked if he had mentioned coelacanths instead: they were known from the fossil record, but no one guessed that they would turn up alive a few years later.

At what point, Perry, will you place your image of God?

At this moment the question is a most interesting one. There appears to have been a major universal cultural change, not accompanied by any change in anatomy (as visible in bones, the only part preserved that long), rather more than 40,000 years ago. Tools, which had stayed much the same over thousands of years, began developing rapidly; they also started taking on distinct local styles, as had not happened before. Cave art from 40,000 years ago is remarkably beautiful and so well done that it ought to be a hoax, but it isn't. There is an idea going around, probably too respectable to be called ill-informed, that this change corresponds to the beginning of human language. It's still really in the realm of speculation, but it might make Perry wonder: Suppose that you wanted to write a myth about the first beings with enough of a language-based human consciousness to be able to choose right or wrong action, and which way they chose -- Ahem. This is ill-informed rubbish, of course.

page 204
scientific authority for original sin

Really? What do apes and tigers have to do with sin? Pace Saint Francis, what you need for either sin or virtue, surely, is consciousness that one thing is good and another is not, as the authors of Genesis seemed to know. It's odd to hear the learned reverend gentleman speaking this way, even if he couldn't know about the 40K Revolution that I mention above -- assuming it really existed.

If the author of Genesis...

What a pity that none of the gentlemen knew that in the beginning (in an early stage of the Big Bang) there was Light (or photons, as we now call them—admittedly of a very high energy). Better yet, we can see that same light today; well, anyway, we can detect it as cosmic microwave radiation.

threw the planets off ... owing to a rare accident

Or maybe not a rare accident. Not long after this conversation, it became increasingly common to view the formation of planets as a fairly probable event in the formation of stars, not requiring highly improbable near-collisions or anything. In the last two years it has finally become possible to make observations that tend to confirm the idea. Hoskyns could not possibly know this; but he could perhaps have been a bit less dogmatic where there was no real information at the time.

which might not happen in a million light-years

Ouch. A light-year is a measure of distance, not time. It would strain credulity to assert that this clause really means that planets would form only once in a space with a radius of a million light-years —in a completely unspecified time span. The alternative, that a physicist perpetrates a howler like this, strains credulity beyond the breaking point.

Where is your Matter?

Now that people are comfortable with the unintuitive ghostly qualities of matter, this question doesn't get raised much. Today in a discussion of this kind it would sound more like a debating point than a big philosophical or scientific problem. Still, Hoskyns would have had even more fun with a universe made of multi-dimensional strings that aren't strings of anything at all.

page 205
Your chain of causation would only be a real one if all possible combinations and permutations were worked out in practice.

Having recently asserted that I couldn't make out what this is supposed to mean, I have, maybe, made it out. Here goes.

In the familiar world, things are deterministic: you can predict what will happen if you have enough information. We roll dice to randomize decisions; but in reality (the old-fashioned reality) the result of a roll is predetermined. If only we knew the exact place where you let go of the dice and the exact speed and direction of your throw and the properties of the dice and the surface they land on blah blah blah, and we had a good enough computer, then we could predict how they will come up. But as a practical matter we don't and we haven't, so we can't. Therefore, the best we can do is to treat the result by the mathematical laws of random events.

At the subatomic level things are different. The behavior of really tiny things is described by a mathematical doodad called a wave function, which changes with time in a deterministic way. But all it does is predict the probabilities of the various results you might get if you made a measurement. The specific result of an actual measurement is a random selection from all the possibilities under the wave function, and it really is random, and there's no getting around it. This is the pretty much unanimous consensus of those who know the subject. The consensus is much stronger than it was in Hoskyns's time, or even twenty years ago, because of Bell's theorem, which shows that no local hidden-variable theory is adequate for quantum mechanics. What that means in English, as far as I can tell, is that any possible remedy for the randomness in quantum mechanics must be worse than the disease.

So what? So, Hoskyns seems to be saying that the only thing that's truly deterministic is the set of all the different ways in which everything can turn out. In this, one could say that he's doing exceedingly well at interpreting the most advanced physics of his time. Whether one agrees with his idea that all the possibilities would have to be realized is another question. I don't find it very sensible, but in a way it's not looking so bad right now.

In the last few years a clever idea has come out: that every event that could come out in two different ways at the quantum level spawns two new universes, one for each outcome, which can never again communicate with each other. The multiple universes seem to be generally regarded as a really amusing idea, with no fallacy present, but not an idea worth taking seriously, because there's really nothing you can do with it. But it seems to embody the idea that Hoskyns is expressing, which makes him a bit of a prophet.

page 205
"Why should it ever have started at all?"

Matthews is expressing the scientist's preference for universal laws, applying uniformly in all times and places. Scientists generally are not pleased by special rules invented just to account for some special happening, or by discontinuities, or by singularities (places where some quantity runs off to infinity, which makes things really hard to compute). If there is a Beginning of the universe, then we live in a very special time: somewhat earlier or later, life would not be possible anywhere in the universe. Worse yet, the Beginning itself, whatever form it took, would surely violate all the laws of conservation of energy and all. The dislike of this idea is at base the same as the scientists' discomfort, which we saw a few pages ago, with the creation of the Earth by some extremely improbable accident.

Hoskyns, however, points out that a universe that goes on uniformly forever violates the second law of thermodynamics, which we'll consider in a moment.

Coincidentally, at the time of this conversation there were two new problems with the timeless universe. The first came from the General Theory of Relativity, which had been published in 1915. Einstein found that his equations did not have a solution that allowed for the universe to be stable: seemingly, it must be either blowing up or shrinking. That result was so unreasonable that Einstein inserted the "cosmological constant" to make a stable solution possible; this approach smelled rather of a fudge factor, but seemed necessary.

But there's another problem, which was just developing as these gentlemen talked. About 1929, Hubble found that the universe was blowing up; that is, when viewed at a cosmic scale, everything seemed to be flying away from everything else at a speed proportional to the distance. Naturally, if the universe is blowing up, then there's no need for a cosmological constant to make things stable; and Einstein looked back on the constant as his biggest blunder.

That's where it stood in 1929, or as soon as people like Hoskyns got wind of Hubble's work. What has happened during the rest of the century?

If everything is flying apart, then you can try to trace it back to its origin. Based on the present distances and speeds of distant galaxies, everything seems to come together about 10-20 billion years ago. By 2003 this has settled down comfortably at about 13 billion. In the 1930s and 40s, astrophysicists started working out a theory of how the universe could have started with everything jammed together in one point at infinite density, after which it blew apart and evolved into the universe we now see. The infinite density, by the way, means that the theory starts with one of those mathematical singularities that scientists dislike so much.

The maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle really disliked this theory, and he coined a derisive name to make fun of it: he called it the Big Bang. The name stuck. Meanwhile, he went one evening with some friends to a showing of the suspense movie Dead of Night. (Highly Recommended on its own merits.) During the bull session afterwards, he was inspired with a new theory of a steady-state universe of infinite age. (To explain the train of thought would be a Spoiler, and I'm not the sort that goes around telling people who killed Roger Ackroyd. (Oh well, everyone knows it was Rosebud.)) Hoyle's clever idea was that as the universe expands, a tiny bit of matter pops into existence here and there, so that the average density of stuff remains the same forever in spite of the expansion. The thermodynamic problem is also solved—or anyway, answered, or dismissed—by this brute-force approach.

For some years one had a choice: a steady state that violates the conservation of energy, or a Beginning that violates pretty much all the laws of everything.

In the 1970s Hoyle lost. Penzias and Wilson, working with sensitive microwave equipment, tried to eliminate an annoying background signal, and eventually discovered that this noise was not an effect of bird droppings in the antenna (I'm not making this up), but was a uniform microwave radiation from all directions and was an effect that the Big Bang theory predicted: the cooled-down remnants of the intense high energy radiation of an early point in the history of the universe. The steady-state theory had no place for such an effect. Time for a Nobel Prize and the victory of the Big Bang.

(Nothing is permanent. While editing this, I saw a review of Hoyle's latest book, which has a way of accounting for the microwave radiation. His theory, though, is currently less satisfactory than Big Bang.)

Coming up to the very end of the century: the cosmic microwave background radiation is not really quite uniform, nor should it be under the theory as it's now understood. (Some odd things have also happened to that zero-point when the density is infinite.) At this moment the study of the non-uniformity of the radiation is clarifying the early history of the universe and its eventual fate. It has also helped to bring about a revival of the cosmological constant. Plus ça change, and all that.

I commented a while ago on how pleased the Reverend Mr. Perry would be to hear that the early universe consisted largely of Light, and that the light is still in a sense visible today. He might be more surprised than pleased to find that some people right now, inspired by ideas of the literal scientific truth of the Scriptures he loves, want to suppress the teaching of the idea that the universe originated in a Big Bang and a Let There Be Light. I dunno, maybe he could make of it a sermon on Original Sin, showing how the corruption of morals necessarily corrupts minds so that people can't see what's in their own interest!

There I go again. But perhaps it's not so far from the orthodoxy of Sayers.

Second law of thermodynamics

Perry's quote about the statistics of an assemblage is the start of a formal statement in statistical thermodynamics. The usual simplification for the general public is that entropy never decreases in a closed system. A fine simplification, no? But you see, entropy is the measure of a kind of disorder, or randomness. This will keep increasing.

Perhaps the best part of his remark is its manifestation of Sayers as Prophet; see the note above on her essay "Oedipus Simplex". The second law was the very thing that C. P. Snow would describe in 1959 as "about the scientific equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?" Flanders and Swann even wrote a song about it, but their statement that "Heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body" is not a very useful statement of the law except for the purposes of a song, and a strange song at that.

But that's all right. If you have trouble figuring out exactly what the Second Law really is, even after reading this clear exposition, you can take comfort in this:

More than 150 years after its essence was first discovered, there exists no single, generally used formulation of the Second Law.
--Heiner Linke, writing in Science, v. 299, p. 842 (7 February 2003).

As to randomness: if, for instance, you were putting salt and sugar at random into a vessel of pure water, you would be much less likely to get nearly all the salt on one side and nearly all the sugar on the other than to get them all mixed together. That is, the latter is at higher entropy; and the second law leads you to expect that any spontaneous change will be towards the even mixture, away from the separation. The law also predicts that if one part of a room is hot and the other is cold, the heat will tend to spread uniformly. It also predicts, in a quantitative and useful way, a lot of things that are not obvious.

"Closed system" means this: you can lower entropy in one place, provided it increases somewhere else. You can pump heat out of a box into the surrounding room, reaching a lower entropy state than if everything were at uniform temperature; but only if you do something that increases the entropy somewhere else. In this case, I'd suggest plugging in the refrigerator. Its heat pump will not only release more heat into the room than it takes out of its interior, but will increase entropy at the power generating station. (What you're importing here is actually Free Energy, but the power company will not be impressed if you tell them that when they send the bill.) Similarly, you can, if you are a plant, convert water and carbon dioxide to sugar and oxygen at lower entropy, provided that you can draw free energy from somewhere.

In both cases—assuming your power station is non-nuclear—energy from the Sun, starting at a temperature of thousands of degrees, is being dissipated at about 300 degrees above absolute zero. In effect, the energy is running downhill, and in the process it can readily pump some heat uphill from the cold refrigerator to the warm room, or organize some atoms into an improbable state. Think of this: To thermodynamics, the refrigeration and the photosynthesis are the same kind of thing, subject to the same analysis. Now you see why the subject is so important in modern physics and chemistry.

(By the way, your friendly neighborhood nuclear power plant is using fission reactions that in effect take place at millions of degrees, just as your 5500-degree sunlight is powered by fusion reactions at millions of degrees in the depths of the Sun.)

Anyway, the net movement of energy everywhere is downhill, toward a uniform state from which no additional useful energy can be extracted. That's what is happening to the universe: eventually it must run down so that everything is all gray and uniform, and nothing can ever happen. This is the famous Heat Death of the Universe, which many people have found distasteful. E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful) not only scorned Snow's implication that thermodynamics could be weighed against Shakespeare, but seemed to think that such an end for the universe was an insult to its Creator. Another Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, took a more genial view: No Christian, he said, needs to be told that this universe will not last forever. It's not hard to guess where Perry would have stood.

"Perry, if you like, can reconcile Foreknowledge with Freewill."

This richly deserves commentary, but I'm not in a position to write it. Certainly the issue is not one that science has solved (or clarified, I'd say) by century's end. John Polkinghorne, ordained minister and Fellow of the Royal Society, has written worthily of such matters, but I don't know whether he's right, or whether, having heard him out, one will not emulate Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard much argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.
--Khayyam and Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat

page 206
Well, Pontius,...

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?
--John 18:38

Not to mention,
What is truth, said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
--Francis Bacon, "Of Truth"


Being the crux of the whole argument, and key to the mystery, this discussion has been relegated to the Appendix. Well, it's a bit long to go here.

"We will pass aether"

But I won't, precisely because physicists have passed the ether and have no need of it any more.

In the beginning philosophers debated what light was. In the beginning of modern science Newton decided that it consisted of particles, while scientists on the Continent considered it to be a kind of wave motion. About 1800 the issue was settled conclusively and for very good reason in favor of waves.

But waves are vibrations; surely, then, there must be something that's vibrating. And it must pervade the empty space between us and the Sun, through which light passes although sound cannot. When James Clark Maxwell developed a theory of light as an electromagnetic vibration, and Hertz and others confirmed it, physicists had a conceptual need for a "luminiferous ether", even though that ether had strange properties, such as being infinitely tenuous and extremely stiff.

Enter Einstein. In 1905, though no one quite noticed it at the moment, he killed the ether. Twice, in two unrelated papers. He showed (building on Planck's work) that light has characteristics of a particle as well as a wave; and he showed (in agreement with the Michelson-Morley experiment, though he didn't mention it) that the actual behavior of light makes the concept of the ether unnecessary and unworkable.

But old habits die hard, and it took half a century to shake off the notion that vibration requires some material stuff that's vibrating.

My dogmatic and semi-informed presentation here may inspire some dissent. It will hardly be disputed, though, that at the end of the century the ether is an outdated idea, for which working physicists see no need. As there has been no new discovery since 1930, empirical or theoretical, to account for that change of approach, I hold to 1905 as the date at which the ether became superfluous, and to a delayed reaction as the explanation for its presence in the thinking of physicists a generation later.

Vibrations are all brought into one plane

Actually, the light vibrating in one plane proceeds in one direction, while that vibrating perpendicularly goes off in another; the equipment selects one of the two beams.

page 207
We all frowned and practised on our own hands.

The physicist Hoskyns didn't, knowing all this already, but he was polite enough not to yawn.

blue mould

The Department of Unintentional Prophecy rattles on. Waters is speaking of Penicillium, the source (as discovered a few years later) of penicillin.

page 208
I am sorry to find you on the side of the angels.

The biologist Matthews stays true to form (a form that had not changed by the end of the century) as the dedicated materialist. He is alluding to Disraeli:

"Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these newfangled theories."
—Speech at Oxford Diocesan Conference, November 25, 1864

You have Jeans on your side

Sir James Jeans; see above. A modern would not readily accept Jeans's statement that the universe could not have originated by chance out of its present ingredients. Current versions of Big Bang theory, though still presenting problems, have by no means proved unable to account for the world through natural processes. Jeans could be considered technically right in that the "present ingredients" were not present in the early stages of the Universe, but that would hardly be an argument for some sort of supernatural intervention.

The Big Bang itself can be taken as Divine intervention by those who wish to; while materialists will find that idea unnecessary and will quote Laplace: "I had no need of that hypothesis."

The Vicar could have commented here (but did not, both because the Big Bang had not yet been formulated and because he didn't want to hold up the plot development) that the doctrines of his own church go beyond Jeans in a way that's very unusual, and perhaps unique apart from some of its Hebrew antecedents: while most so-called creation myths tell of the rearrangement of pre-existing matter, the Christians insist that God made the world literally out of nothing. There is no inconsistency here with the Big Bang!

page 210
Better than Crippen and the wireless

Cribbing from my notes on UNPL,

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murdered his wife in February 1910 and, after a few months, headed for America with his long-time lady friend, Ethel Le Neve. They were arrested as the ship pulled into Quebec; Chief Inspector Walter Dew had communicated with the Canadian police by wireless and sailed there by a faster ship. This was the first capture of a criminal by radio.

page 216
In that green, sick glare

Ouch. Sodium vapor gives off a bright, pure YELLOW light. It is impossible, with normal color vision, to mistake it for anything else. The light is indeed rather ghastly, as you may have noticed in the parking lot of your favorite convenience store, where cheap, highly efficient sodium-vapor lights make your bright red car look like mud. Without leaving home, you can soak a little pile of salt with alcohol and set it alight in a dark room, to admire the strange effect of monochromatic light.

So, why use this nasty light? The amount by which the polarization plane is rotated is dependent on the wavelength of light. Crystals viewed with polarized white light can have very beautiful rainbow hues; but for exact measurement, you want light of a single wavelength. (Or the two very closely spaced wavelengths generated by sodium, if you insist on nit-picking.)

page 218
Who would ever have thought—

At last, I can ask: Can anyone with a strong knowledge of organic chemistry comment on this? I'd have thought that after doing some extraction or other to look for muscarine, a measurement of optical activity would be a natural step to confirm the identity of the stuff. (Chromatography would be very useful, but not in 1929, when the basic idea had been published, but it was far from being a laboratory standard.) Any comments on the plausibility of all this?

APPENDIX: On Asymmetry and the Origin of Life

Him to Whom enantiomers are superposable
-- W H Auden, speaking of God
[cited from memory]

Sayers's exposition of stereoisomerism is good as far as it goes, but it goes much too far.
-- [with a bow to Yogi Berra]

The after-dinner discussion among the scientists and their straight men is great fun, and it raises many scientific matters for discussion, which mostly are treated in the main Notes. But what about the one that's the whole point? How does the discussion of Life, the Universe, and Asymmetry stack up against science after 70 years?

The scientists in the story stay in character pretty well. The biologist (Matthews) is the most likely of the scientists to be the unmystical, atheistic type; surveys at the end of the century have confirmed this tendency. The tendency of chemist Waters to vitalism (holding that Life does something that's not strictly accountable in terms of physical theory) sounds odd to me, but it's relevant to the topic being discussed. The physicist Hoskyns is harder to place, so I won't.

Getting to the point, we have Waters stating, " is only living substance that has found the trick of transforming a symmetric, optically active [sic] compound into a single, asymmetric, optically active compound." (The first "active" is a misprint for "inactive"; it comes out right in a repetition later on.) This is the keynote for the whole discussion.

Having said that, Waters needs to give a general exposition of polarized light and asymmetric molecules for the poor ignorant layman represented by Munting. To me, the presentation seems very good and clear; actual chemists seem to agree with this. But then, the subject is familiar ground to me because I was inhaling odd fumes in assorted labs when my peers were learning the world's literature; the latter are the people who will know where our explanations fail to explain; they are the ones who should raise questions about the exposition, if they don't find it too obscure for even the formulation of questions.

With the explanations done, we are able to ask the question of Life's ability to make asymmetric matter out of symmetric raw materials. Really, there are two questions that are not clearly distinguished in the conversation. In order of difficulty, which is the opposite of the historical order in the development of Life:

1. Given that organisms already exist, how much mystery is there about the fact that they can take in symmetric forms of matter and generate asymmetric products?

2. How much mystery is there about the origin of asymmetric living stuff from a previously symmetric world?

The answer to the first question, contrary to the learned Dr. Japp, is that there is no mystery at all. Once you have an asymmetric system to work with, there is no theoretical problem, and no insurmountable technical problem, in generating any amount of asymmetric stuff using the existing stuff as a sort of template. It doesn't require consciousness, or living matter, or chemicals extracted from living matter. You don't even need organic (carbon-based) compounds.

Potassium nitrite is symmetric. That is, potassium ions are symmetric, and nitrite ions are symmetric, and there is no asymmetry in a solution of them. The crystals that it forms, however, come in two asymmetric, mirror-image types. So far, this doesn't contradict Japp, because a solution, left to crystallize slowly, will make equal quantities of the two types of crystal. You can go in with forceps and a microscope, separating the two types of crystal into two heaps, and then you have real asymmetry; this is what Pasteur, a chemist by training, did in the first investigation of an asymmetric crystal, tartaric acid. But you're using your fine and asymmetrical living human brain in doing so.

But suppose that some tiny crystals of just one of the two forms fall into the solution as it starts to crystallize; then they will act as seeds to form masses of crystals of that one type. So there's nothing strange or vitalistic about converting symmetric matter into asymmetric, if you have asymmetric stuff to start with.

In practice, the usual test-tube chemical syntheses generate symmetric products. To this day, the easiest way to generate asymmetric organic compounds is to use the highly asymmetric enzymes that living things provide. But the mystery of asymmetric synthesis is a dead issue. Like the transmutation of elements, it's not impossible, just expensive.

You might still ask (and it's relevant to the question of origins, which we'll get to next) why living things have so many asymmetric molecules. Why are proteins made of pure L amino acids, with never a mirror-image D amino acid? [1] For proteins the answer is that their functions depend critically on shape. A random mix of L and D would take random shapes; and even in an ordered, non-random mix, it would be hard to form the regular structures, like the alpha-helix, that the larger shape depends on. Life would work equally well with either form, D or L [2], but a mix would be really inefficient.

Now about the second question: isn't impossible (or improbable to an extent that would humble Zaphod Beeblebrox [3]) to make symmetric stuff into asymmetric stuff if you don't have some asymmetric template to start with? And if it were possible, wouldn't it violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics by creating order out of chaos?

The thermodynamic answer is easy: No. Forming ordered stuff out of disordered stuff raises no thermodynamic problem as long as there's a sufficient source of "free energy", such as something that's hot cooling off to match its surroundings. As I mentioned before, photons from the Sun, at 5500 degrees K, being absorbed by matter at 300 K, can do the job.

The main question, that of getting asymmetry out of a symmetric system, turns out to be shockingly easy. Take that potassium nitrite solution I mentioned. Don't seed it, but let it crystallize slowly by itself. Leave it quite alone, and you'll get a mix of the two types of crystal, as I said. Now repeat, but stir the solution vigorously as it crystallizes. You get massively more of one type of crystal than of the other. Nope, it doesn't depend on which way you stir; the choice is random.

What is surely happening, though I don't know of direct evidence, is that the first crystal that starts to form gets broken by the vigorous stirring; the same happens to the crystals that are formed from these seeds; and so the whole solution is seeded in a single form, depending on the chance of how the first crystal forms. [4]

This hardly solves the mystery of the origin of life. But it does remove a big apparent impossibility, of the sort that's dear to the Intelligent Design party, which is all I asked it to do.

To ramble on a bit: Ideas concerning the origin of life abound, still, after 70 years, and none is close to being completely satisfactory. Some hypotheses, such as God, are simply outside what can be investigated by science, and the scientists stick to ideas that can be investigated—or they go and investigate something else. Other ideas verge on the merely silly, like Hoyle's idea that life on Earth was planted by intelligent beings from somewhere else: this just shoves the problem off into some other part of the universe. Could be true, but (I wouldn't say this about the God hypothesis) who cares?

There are other ideas worth taking seriously: Lightning in the reducing atmosphere, hot dilute soup, hot clay particles, proto-metabolism joining proto-inheritance in symbiosis -- great fun, all these and more. Right now there are some really interesting ideas about proto-life in which RNA does the work of both DNA and enzymes. What's relevant here, though, is that once something gets going and is able to use a source of energy to propagate itself, it takes off and organizes everything available into copies of itself. Once that has happened, the conditions no longer exist for some mirror-image sort of life to get started.

[1] Yes, pedants, there are D amino acids in bacterial cell walls and some antibiotics; and glycine is neither D nor L. Big deal.

[2] As far as we know, that is. If we discover life in several other places, and the exotic life forms all use L amino acids, then it will be time to worry, as Uncle Al [4] pointed out very recently.

[3] Apologies for the double Hitchhiker's Guide allusion.

[4] This topic has been discussed over a few months (Oct. 99 to Jan 00) in the newsgroup sci.chem. Credit for the nitrite information goes to Uncle Al, though I take the usual responsibility for my own conclusions and errors.
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