Dead languages, useless knowledge and rocks from outer space

This little ramble is inspired by a memory: my mother once said that she couldn’t understand why Latin – a ‘dead language’- was taught in schools, and why anyone would want to learn anything so useless. Latin is embedded in English grammar along with other linguistic influences, and is our ancient language of prayer and law, it haunts our everyday lives whether we learned it or not.  It was the original language of western scholars and scientists, doctors and dictators. It is powerful beyond the grave!

Language is the interface between the abstract and the real. It is the medium of telepathy between humans. We can argue about what we mean by language, whether written, vocal or signed in some way. I mean it as a capability for abstraction and complex expression, beyond what we need for our immediate survival.  We have some fundamental signals for our most fundamental needs that do not need complex language, such as a baby’s instinctive wail for milk.  A mother does not easily neglect her crying baby.

Yet we have a fascination for the ‘abstract’. Mathematics is often considered a complete abstraction, but I feel it is more fundamantal and practical, emergent from our brains, another kind of language, alongside our ‘everyday’ language. We seem to be driven to seek patterns in everything. Mathematics developed all over the world alongside ‘practical’  language. Marvellous achievements in mathematics occurred long before industrial times, arguably spurred by our curiosity about the stars. Meticulous observations of the movement of the mysterious lights in the sky gave rise to scientific method and the need to develop a theory of patterns – the numbers and geometry that are now fundamental to our modern society. Our modern lives would be impossible without mathematics. Those early scholars are with us in all aspects of our lives.

Observational astronomy is an act of utter devotion, requiring consistent and unremitting attention to detail. These first astronomers toiled over many years to understand things they could have regarded as merely sky decoration. There were no obvious or immediate benefits for those who devoted their lives to observing. Yet the benefits to mankind of this early science are profound. There is a message to all those who want science to be done only for things that have an ‘obvious’ and immediate payback. Our ability to predict – using observation and calculation and a solid understanding of the mechanics of the solar system – that the piece of rock due to approach our planet tonight (15th February)  will miss us with 28,000km to spare is based upon the work of Gallileo and Newton. We are lucky now to have computers to help with the calculations, but the work for these devices was once relegated to the basement in more than one sense!

My thought for the day is that abstraction –  whether consequent from language as an instruction, story or prayer, or as a mathematical expression for the path of a meteorite – is a natural extension the mind – a virtual self to take on the unknown.


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