Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Thirty Year Read 

The false thumb of a pandas is actually a wrist bone. Image via

I can’t recall the exact date or year but it was probably 1986, the year that my brother Chris and I were both attending Memorial University. That was actually a very unique year. For at least one semester, three of four Rogers brothers were all attending the same scholastic institution. I was doing what was then known as General Studies, Chris was completing a Bachelors of Science and Dave was studying Commerce. Not since Chris, Mike and Dave had all been in grade school at St. George’s in a one room school house, (yes, such a thing existed even in my lifetime) had three of us been studying in one place. Unfortunately, as university schedules can range from 8:30 AM to 8:30 PM lectures, and Chris was busy with unscheduled lab work, this situation led to a complicated and varied commute. Most mornings we went in together in one car, but because university days could go longer than planned or required extracirricualr group study sessions et cetera, our return home was more mixed. None of us, that I recall, were what you would call “Morning People” so the morning commute was usually more mute than communicative. Yet the ride home could be far more animated. As science was a common topic for Chris and myself the conversations ranged from the offshore fishery to the statistical likelihood of contracting an illness from a university toilet and how that likelihood increased with proximity to the student centre. At some point I complained that I probably wouldn’t get much from reading Darwin without any real background in biology (somehow I managed to skip it in high school) but Chris suggested Stephen J. Gould as an alternative.

Stephen J. Gould was a gifted writer who had an ability to discuss complex ideas eloquently and with a certain ease that made advanced scientific discussions accessible to non-scientists. Mostly. Some ideas really required more domain knowledge than this non-scientist could digest. Still his collection of essays, The Panda’s Thumb intrigued me. Each essay seemed concise and written in an everyday language. I bought my copy from the university bookshop but I never found time to really dig into it. A huge difference between high school and university was spare time. Whereas in high school I found time to read a lot, often as procrastination from other studies, in university I found no such luxury. In fact, the extra reading required from university generally broke my reading for pleasure habit entirely. I still own far more I’ve never even opened than ones I’ve read. Realizing this after looking at my bookshelves is what led me back to Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb.

As I started reading the book again I realized how many times I’d read the first handful of essays (three, four perhaps). This time I was determined to push through. Generally, if I’m not interested in a book I give up and forget about it but I was genuinely interested in this book and I suppose it was probably one or two sections that flummoxed me. At some point, I got about halfway through when I needed a break and read two light and entertaining Douglas Adams books (the Dirk Gently books). I usually read in bed because it helps me reset my head and get to sleep but that obviously has trained me to fall asleep after reading only a dozen pages or so. In fact, if I read on the couch, I’ve found my default position has been to try absorbing the book through my chest with my eyes closed. Then I discovered an issue of Cabinet magazine which was themed around the idea of the North. Several of the articles referred to several ideas from the Gould’s essays which had the effect of re-invigorating my interest in that book.

So here I am, finishing the last essay of a book procured over thirty years ago, thousands of kilometres away. The name of the last essay? “Time’s Vastness”. If only Gould knew how prophetic that would be. Then again, in paleontological terms, thirty years is less than a blink of a panda’s eye.



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