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Saturday, March 31, 2012

My grandmother said (part 2 of 2)

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)

The wasp incident didn't really have much to do with my story, now I come to think of it. What I wanted to write about was the hidden truth that's often immersed in "Old Wives' Tales".

I quickly got bored at the cemetery. I'd liked to have jumped from one grave to another, but that was disrespectful, Granny said, the first and only time I did it. That's naughty. Stop it right now.

I did. Granny's word was law.

She was right, I guess. You don't trample over your relatives' bones, even if you never met them and didn't have the foggiest who they were, and didn't care. But you know, if I were under that slab, I wouldn't mind if one of my three year old descendants played on the marble edges of my grave. I'd be quite pleased about it. "You might be in one of these one day, kid," I would have beamed up, "so be certain you make the best of the time you've got."

They wouldn't have known what I was talking about, but maybe something might have stuck.

On the way back from the cemetery, Granny noticed the clouds gathering.

"Good. Storms on their way. It takes thunder to really make the grass grow. It shakes the ground, and loosens the soil."

Granny said it, so it must be true.

Later on, when we were very clever, we'd laugh about this "Old Wives' Tale". Granny had some funny ideas, we'd say. She'd rub crushed leaves on insect bites and burns, or mix up and drink odd concoctions when she was feeling poorly.

But it won't come as any surprise to you that there is so often a basis to "Old Wives' Tales" rooted in good observation.

Take Granny's thunder, for example.

I had to admit, growing up on the farm, that after a violent electrical storm, even though there might not have been that much rain, there was extra verve in the new-grown grass within a fortnight. Was I just imagining it because Granny said it was so?

It made me think about the physics and chemistry of what happens in one of those really rip-roaring electrical storms I loved; where the lightning plays unceasingly along the edges of the clouds, bolts streaking from one to another, sometimes zeroing out by (apparently) striking the earth. Flash flash flash streak fork boom!

Let's think now. The clouds are full of electricity, charging, recharging and discharging. The lightning ripples and sparks like it does in a Van de Graaff generator.

Not the one in our lab!
We had one of these at the Physics and Chem lab at high school and I was fascinated by it – but let's not go there right now, except to say that I was privileged to study both these sciences for my whole time at high school.

And that was what made me think about Granny's silly "Old Wives' Tale." Maybe it wasn't that dumb after all.

The atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. Those storm clouds were full of water. Good old H2O.

Right there in the storm clouds, with powerful and constant electrical discharges of huge voltage for the milliseconds they exist, there were three elements: hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen.

Yep. Chemistry says there are the three ingredients of nitric acid. H2NO3. With each bit of electrical activity, the water in the clouds gets a very weak dose of this by the action of the constant electrical discharge, and falls as rain.

We go to the plant nursery and buy nitrogen fertiliser. We sprinkle it around and douse it in water. Our sweetcorn and roses love the hit of soluble nitrates.

So, Granny's "good thunderstorm" gave the entire countryside a mild soaking of the same fertiliser that we pay a fortune for in the gardening shop.

All Granny had wrong was to ascribe the effect of the storm to the thunder, not the lightning. I doubt the shaking of the earth was anything to do with it, but that doesn't matter. She heard the thunder, observed the grass growth, and put two and two together, and got 3.9. Nearly right. Near enough to award a tick for an empirical view of cause and effect.

How often we invent our own "Old Wives' Tales". Something looks logical enough; there's nothing that seems to contradict it, so it's true until proven otherwise. I have no objection to that.

That's the way science works. It's a work in progress. Newton was right because it all fitted perfectly with his mathematics, until Einstein came along and showed that his maths weren't comprehensive enough. Newton hadn't known about relativity or he'd have built it in, unlike the dogmatists who explain science away to preserve that dogma, come hell or high water.

Superstition does too. It avoids science.

It may seem like a matrix, but credulity is very different from superstition.

Our ancestors saw the lightning and thunder and assumed that the gods were having one hell of a row in Heaven. Empirically, it made the best sense, with all that superhuman flashing and roaring and mighty hullabaloo. No wonder the epic tales were full of quarreling, far-from-perfect gods and goddesses. How else can you explain all that racket in the heavens?

At least, till someone else came up with something better.

But it's still a work in progress. All knowledge is, and if you dare think you've got it down pat, someone's going to burst your bubble eventually. Don't fall too much in love with a theory.  

If you don't watch the first 25 seconds at least of this supporting evidence, the gods will get you.

I'm not joking. Granny said, and so it must be.

And the quote(6) I didn't want to start with in the first part? It's intriguing. Very, very intriguing. Are you game?

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)

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