I Thought I’d Never Ask

Posted on July 24, 2014


FrozenWhenever I learn something brand new – when I read a book, watch a documentary, or go on a guided tour – I eventually find myself bothered by a nagging question about the subject. It’s never the same question, but it’s usually one that undermines the entire presentation. And I always think of it too late. It could be the next day or the following week, or a decade may have passed. As I’m standing in the shower or trying to refill the stapler, a loose end of curiosity will appear inside my head, like a freshly sprouted seedling. Not a good seedling either, but a thorny weed with roots the length of a rake handle. I try to pull it out, but it keeps growing back.

Here’s an example.

There’s the idea that long ago, humans wandered out of Asia and ventured into what is now the United States and Canada. According to this theory, after arriving on the new continent, they spread out slowly. Many moved south along the coast, while others headed north.

Anthropologists speculate that this began to happen about twelve thousand years ago. Or maybe fifteen thousand. Or nineteen. This is one of the advantages of being an anthropologist: you can spend all of your time speculating about things, and nobody can call you on it, because they have no idea either. Everything they know in that field is based on a few sharpened pieces of stone someone finds in the dirt, completely by accident, while they’re pouring a foundation for a parking garage.

But here’s what I don’t understand. At some point, the people who had turned northward crossed into a region that was covered with ice. There were no animals or plants, and no trees to cut down. No food and no fuel. Nothing but frozen air and frozen water. Something must have caused them to say to themselves, “This looks like a good spot! Let’s stay here!” What was it, exactly? Why didn’t they backtrack a few miles, to someplace where they didn’t have to spend every minute focused on frostbite?

The textbooks tell us that these early explorers gradually learned how to build houses out of snow, and to heat them with fire. But while they were still in the learning phase, how did they avoid freezing to death? How did they start the fires, and keep them going? What were they burning? And how did they manage to come up with a way to heat the inside of a snow house without melting the entire neighborhood?

I did try posing these questions to a museum security guard once, but he just got irritated and told me not to stand too close to the plastic igloo.

Here’s another example.

Homemade soap contains lye, which is produced when water is rinsed through a pile of ashes. Lye is corrosive. It’s used to clean ovens and unclog drains. If you dipped your hand in it, your skin would fall off. Yet, people continued to experiment with lye, reasoning that there must be a way to wash off the dirt without stripping away the flesh, too. I imagine that this pursuit of cleanliness left behind a long trail of well-scrubbed skeletons. But why this obsession with lye in the first place? Did anyone even bother to try goat’s milk?

SoapThe history books also explain that the ancient Egyptians and Greeks calculated – to a pretty high degree of accuracy – the circumference of the earth. This impresses me a lot, because I have trouble calculating how much grass seed I need for a lawn the size of a Little League outfield. They accomplished this by comparing the angle of the sun’s shadow at noon in two different cities. All it takes is some basic trigonometry, a course that, thousands of years ago, was offered as a kindergarten elective. But when you’re measuring the length of a shadow, a small error would throw off the result by a big number. They had to be sure they were working in both locations at the same moment. How did they know when it was noon in two different cities? These people were keeping time with sundials. I made a sundial in my eighth-grade ceramics class, and you couldn’t have used it to figure out what month it was.

* * * * *

I hear people talk about terrorism, and this often leads to a discussion of the Quran. The impression I get is that not one of these people has ever read a page of that book. Their intent is to ridicule it, especially the passage that allegedly promises an eternal paradise to the killers of infidels. What they most want to address is the part that says a worthy terrorist will be rewarded in heaven with seventy-two virgins.

Does the Quran really say that? I doubt it. Anything written that many centuries ago would have to be translated from one language to another, and the results are almost always unreliable. Translators are like cake decorators — they make mistakes, then cover them up with a thick layer of linguistic frosting.

I haven’t read the Quran either, so I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I can’t help but wonder about the basic premise of this particular offer. It sounds like an obvious attempt to control behavior by luring followers to do things they wouldn’t otherwise consider. There are plenty of Muslims who are at least as smart as I am, and many who are much smarter. They understand that eternity is a long time, while the concept of virginity, by definition, is temporary. How do those two ideas fit together? Then there’s the mathematical problem of needing seventy-two women for every man. And what about the virgins themselves? Do they look at this arrangement and see it as paradise, too? It seems to me they’d have a somewhat different perspective on the matter.

* * * * *

In all of these cases, and in others, the only way to clear up the mystery would be to go back in time and witness the events directly. That’s difficult to do. I attended a lecture once on time travel, but had to leave early and missed the question-and-answer period. And then, of course, it was too late.


Posted in: In Over My Head