Last night as I was drifting off to sleep with a BBC documentary on beside me (bad sleep hygiene…I know, I know) I got an answer to a question I had asked many decades ago and now I’m not quite sure what to do with it.
I had already looked the answer up in the time between then and now but this question, and the way it wasn’t answered all those years ago, have been an itch in my brain all this time.
When I was around 8 years old I was writing a story in school. I don’t remember what it was about, but it was set in space and someone (alien, spaceperson…me?) needed to get somewhere fast.
I asked my teacher how long a light year was. He did not know.
Without being too much of a drama-llama about it, this moment has always felt like a turning point in my life. This was the point when I started to realise that adults are fallible. I have never expected anyone to know everything, but this teacher didn’t tell me how to find the information for myself. He didn’t explain about how difficult a measurement that is to make and the thing that has stayed with me the most is how he didn’t seem the slightest bit interested in the answer for himself.
So that teacher left 8 year old me with an unanswered question, wading into a deep suspicion that things were not as they should be. (The answer – by the way – is approximately 10 million, million kilometres).
I did alright at school but the suspicion, which went mostly unacknowledged and unexamined, was that I wasn’t being taught the good stuff, just the bare minimum to get me through enough exams so that I could become a productive little cog in the machine.
This belief that we are not being told as much as we should, that we get the shallow end of the information pool, has lead me to poke and prod in places that sometimes hurt. But the years I lived as a good little drone, believing what I was told and behaving like that was all the world was, caused me more pain than any harsh reality could. It took me years to figure that out.
So now I try very hard not to take anything at face value. I question as much as I possibly can. I try to discover the truth for myself, or as close to it as I can get anyway. Oftimes I fail. Oftimes I believe the hype and am disappointed all over again. Oftimes the truth is painful but not as painful as being deceived, coddled and patronised.
I was left asking a different question after the programme finished – if 1% of radio static is the sound of the Cosmic Microwave Background then what is the other 99%?
This time I decided to rely upon myself to find the answer and it turns out to be lightning, manmade interference from other electrical devices and thermal noise from the radio’s own circuits, made by the random movements of molecules. Pretty cool.