I’ve never been particularly well read. Names like Zinn, Diamond, Machiavelli or Feynman have been my bedside companions from time to time, but the majority of my literary intake comes from places like Slashdot and Everything2. Is this a problem? Only when the phrase “it’s new to me” comes up.
Determinism was given its name in my universe when I confided in someone about something that had been bugging me. If particles were based on rules, then something made up entirely of those particles would also be based on rules. The limitations of the small carry up to the large. If particles were based on rules, then I had no free will. She laughed and told me that I was describing determinism, or a scientifically grounded version of ‘fate’. Regardless of whether Maxwell had been having nightmares about this idea starting in the mid 1800’s, it was still a big deal to me at the time.
Another example. Before I had taken any physics classes, I was sitting in study hall my freshman year of high school talking about space. I asked the people at my table what would happen given the following hypothetical scenario.
“You’re in a space suit in outer space, and you’re holding a BB gun. You shoot the gun which sends a BB screaming out of the barrel. What happens?”
The general consensus was that you and the BB moved away from the point of firing at exactly the same speed, because “in space there is no gravity”. They seemed pretty adamant, but this bugged me, and I couldn’t get my head around it. I told them it’d make more sense if it was more proportional, like the BB moved away MUCH faster because it’s mass was MUCH smaller.
If the above paragraph leaves you scratching your head wondering how I could be having trouble with one of the most basic laws of classical physics, keep in mind that I don’t think I’d ever seen or heard of F = M*A yet. Though elementary, this was new, and I was going on instinct and my own observations.
I’m not really that special in this regard. These experiences are probably analogous to others spread out among a healthy portion of all people. A good friend of mine in high school once stepped out of a small existential crisis to claim that happiness resulted from a certain level of selfishness, and that this was just fine. People from Darwin to Dawkins have been talking about the inherency of self interest, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to realize that selfishness is not just okay, but necessary.
I spend my working days making an attempt to determine if an idea is truly original; to decide if what someone claimed has ever been written down and publicly displayed by someone else. Nothing I’ve read yet has been shocking, enlightening or liberating. All of it has been slight variations of other things. Admittedly I read about computers, but I’m not ashamed to say that I was almost moved to tears when I first understood the call/cc command in Lisp. Technology is a realm of creation and creativity like any other.
When I look for prior art, no level of obscurity will stop a rejection. If someone said it in public, game over, you’re not original and there’s no way you can prove you didn’t just copy the other guy. Sometimes I feel being well read is the same way, and it shouldn’t be.
Originality is the ability to think or act independently. If it took seeing your widowed neighbor growing older and older in front of the television to realize that “everyone dies alone”, the fact that some celebrity in a movie enunciated the same phonemes doesn’t diminish your revelation. There is nothing sadder then seeing insight deafened by someone who heard it before.
I’m not really that original, and frankly (my dear) I don’t give a damn.