I’ve always been rubbish at science. Mind you, for a long time I was rubbish at everything: my first teachers, at the lovely village primary school I attended, nursed fears I may turn out to be ‘educationally subnormal’ – or, as they put it in those days, ‘a bit of a sweetheart’. I couldn’t count, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, when my classmates were emeritus professors of the spelling book and the times table. I got there eventually – at the reading and writing end, anyway. Not so much at the counting end, and not so much at the science end.
It was embarrassing. After all, my sister was good at science; my brother was very good at science; and my dad was preposterously good at science, because he was in fact a scientist. (I don’t know whether or not my mum was good at science; but I know she loved her job at the village post office, helping the old dears with their plastic sachets of coppers. She was a phenomenal counter: her hand a blur as it scraped up coin after low-denomination coin and squeezed them into brassy columns of exact value.) My dad worked for a local glass-manufacturing company, modelling improvements to the glass-making processes – tweaks to furnace design, re-anglings of jet-heads. For this reason he didn’t like you saying he was a scientist: he preferred the term ‘technologist’, because his work concerned the application of scientific ideas (technology), not the interrogation of the ideas themselves (science). It didn’t make any difference, though. We all just said he was a scientist.
More awkwardly, he wasn’t the sort of scientist who goes on about science all day (or the sort who stares mutely into space while other people do the talking); no, he was the sort of scientist who reads Dickens and pores over Turner prints and talks about the Middle East and Germaine Greer and Kanye West. So, just as I realised I quite liked books and all that stuff, I saw I couldn’t take the traditional art-fart route of promoting the excellence of the arts over the sciences. I couldn’t pretend that literature and physics were naturally and inevitably exclusive of each other, because my bloody dad had already shown that they weren’t.
Still, he did his best with me. For my tenth birthday he bought me a junior chemistry set, no doubt hoping it would stir in me a nascent appreciation of the periodic table. Sadly, it was not to be. The little set, with its test tubes and ground crystals and powdered minerals, was a lovely thing, and I enjoyed it enormously. But I felt not a jot of interest in chemistry’s underlying principles. I just liked mixing up pretty colours, imagining I was distilling fantastic essences, magical potions.
These days I know a little bit – a very little bit – more about science; but I think my sensation of it remains pretty much as it was then. I remember my feelings only a few years ago, when I impulse-bought an iPad on its first day of sale. That night on the couch my girlfriend and I coiled round the luminous handheld pane, and I thought: This is magic. I didn’t mean This is brilliant, though I thought that as well. I meant This is sorcery. This is old art.
Something else was the same: a slightly frightful rapidity of assimilation. When I was ten I loved my chemistry set, and I mixed my colours and compounded my potions, and then I got bored of the thing and shoved it in a corner and never looked at it again. That’s not exactly what happened with the iPad; I never got bored of it, though I did soon lose my awe of it. In a matter of weeks an object that had felt like radiant contraband from a parallel universe became merely another household item, no more startling than a lamp or an umbrella. It was assimilated, though – I think crucially – still not understood.
Later I thought about this. If I didn’t understand it (and I didn’t), how had I managed to assimilate the iPad so quickly? Was it because the setting in which I placed it, the familiar domestic context of lamps and umbrellas, is similarly inexplicable? Because, though they surround me all day every day, I don’t really know how lamps or umbrellas work, either? Because I have become habituated to living out my days in an environment that I not only do not understand, but that I cheerfully assume it’s not my business to understand?
It struck me that I may not be entirely on my own in this. In our time and place it is a condition of life that we delegate understanding, and specifically scientific understanding, to others. The science (and, as Dad would remind me, the technology) of our environment is too massively complicated for most of us to grasp without prolonged technical study. And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to do that. And so we are content to live in ignorance; intelligent, educated Westerners, with our esoteric knowledge of film and poetry and music, we remain glibly ignorant of the technologies every moment reshaping the world around us. And that, I thought, has to be asking for trouble…
My ideas about where that trouble may lead, or how that trouble may come, resulted in a novel called The Weightless World. The book isn’t really about science (or technology): more, it’s about our shared credulity in the face of miracles we don’t even try to understand. And it’s about a pair of berks who go to India in the hope of buying an antigravity machine, which may or may not exist, from an inventor who, likewise, may or may not exist.
And, I suppose, it’s about my dad, who died in 2013, just as I was starting the book (I’d drafted the first chapter when, one Tuesday morning, my sister phoned, and said I may want to sit down). He’s not in it or anything, but I see now that it begins from a principle he had always set for me, to use however I could: the arts do not excel the sciences; nor the sciences the arts; and yet there are miracles, real miracles, in both.