The Curmudgeon


Thursday, April 08, 2004

Planetary Survey No.5: Science and Superstition on Pondulon Five

The Tectonicitous Spollingrots of Pondulon Five believe that continental drift on their planet is controlled by the turning of a large crank deep beneath the sea. This crank, which brings Pondulon’s two major land masses three centimetres closer to one another every year, is operated (so they say) by a dwarf on an exercycle located precisely in the middle of the floor of the ocean which at present separates the continents. The rear wheel of the exercycle is connected to a chain, which is connected to a complicated mechanism on the nature of which there are far too many theories to go into at this point; and it is this machine which turns the crank that decreases the ocean’s width by three-hundredths of a metre every year. The furious pedalling of the dwarf, the saying goes, is also the cause of ripples which, by the time they manage to make their way to the water’s surface, have become magnified into the waves familiar to everyone on the planet.

The Spollingrots have always been aware that the dwarf was responsible for the waves, but in ancient times it was thought that he created them simply by jumping up and down on the ocean floor while vigorously flapping his arms. Then it was discovered that the continents, Pondle and Londle, were drifting towards each other; this fact was observed by Professor Ignoglod Frake, of the Tectonicitous Academy, who stretched a piece of string from the most westerly point on Pondle to the most easterly point on Londle one midsummer morning, and Professor Glodinog Frake, his grandson, who did exactly the same thing precisely a hundred years later, with the same piece of string, which had been handed down to him across the generations along with the old man’s categorical instructions, and discovered he had three metres to spare.

The continents, therefore, obviously moved; but, clear though it was that no-one but the dwarf could be responsible, it was not, until recently, understood exactly how he was achieving this. Certain obstinate scholars with a traditional cast of mind maintained in the teeth of all evidence that the jumping up and down and flapping of the arms, provided only that it was sufficiently vigorous, accounted both for the ocean waves and the continental drift, in that these actions created both ripples and an underwater vacuum which gradually sucked the continents closer together. This theory was soon discredited by Professor Glodinog Frake, who took another piece of string and used it to measure the depth of the sea at approximately the point where the dwarf was estimated to reside. He then used this measurement to calculate, on the basis of average wave velocity and presumed weight of the continents, that the dwarf would need to exert, through his jumping and flapping, two simultaneous forces of 200 and 200,000,000 pounds per square inch respectively in order to produce the observed phenomena.

Some diehard traditionalists were unimpressed, claiming that the dwarf might be flapping with a force of two hundred pounds to the square inch and jumping with a force of two hundred million; but the bulk of the scientific community found this reasoning implausible. It was then that the theory of the machine began to gain credence, although until fairly recently it was believed that the dwarf operated it by hand; this hypothesis has been conclusively proved erroneous on the basis of highly specialised data which there is no room to explore here, and the exercycle idea has provided a number of plausible answers as well as several fruitful avenues for new speculation. Indeed, only a few years ago a minor atomic war was fought, ostensibly over the precise make and model of the exercycle, although it was later claimed that a hidden agenda existed concerning the specifications of the machine to which it is connected. This, of course, is a question which international law forbids should be settled by armed conflict (although wars over such comparatively minor problems as the make of the exercycle are well within the bounds of the treaty) on the grounds that the question of the machine is so complex and unanswerable as to turn any war for its solution into a holocaust which the race could not survive.

Some decades ago it was thought that the dwarf was deliberately attempting to destroy the whole planet, including the Spollingrots, by bringing the continents together in a collision of unimaginable violence. During this pessimistic stage of history, large fleets of ships from both Pondle and Londle sailed for the middle of the ocean to drop tactful offers of peaceful negotiation, wrapped around large pieces of rock, into the murky depths which, according to the science of the day, the dwarf was presumed to inhabit. Later, when no response came to these polite solicitations, the lumps of rock were dropped anew, this time without the messages; but, as the now ritualistic measurements, carried out always with the famous Professors' venerable piece of string, continued to show, Pondle and Londle were still destined to meet.

In the present day, however, the racial mind of the Spollingrots has entered a more humane and compassionate phase, and many luminaries of the Tectonicitous Academy of Submarinal Midgetology now believe that the dwarf may intend only to help the Spollingrots to find peace and brotherhood with each other by bringing them closer together. Almost everyone now thinks the pedalling will probably slow down as the continents near one another, though some, of a less optimistic school, are beginning to theorise that the dwarf may be under some kind of compulsion to pedal as he does, and thus (as they observe) to bring upon himself the torment of watching the walls of his prison, in the shape of the two continents, move in to crush him, albeit rather slowly. Perhaps, they say, perhaps when the continents are closer together and we have a smaller area of sea to search; perhaps then we shall be able to find out at last where he is and what he is trying to do; perhaps, if he is truly under restraint by some being or beings as yet unknown, we shall even be able to help him. But whatever happens, it will not happen for some little time yet; the ocean is still three and a half thousand miles wide. The glory of truth must go to a different generation; our own can only speculate. That is what the Spollingrots say.