THERE’S A WOLVERINE IN MY SCIENCE
Science has brought us to where we are now: Here. It’s fairly nice here; the air smells vaguely of jasmine, the curtains are delightful – yellow was a good choice – and our lives aren’t nearly as nasty, brutish and short as they once were. That tomato with the face is menacing and it seems a tad warm, but on the whole Here is very pleasant. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Here is the best here there is. Could science have, in a slightly altered environment, ushered us down another path? What would Here be like if humans had evolved underwater as a super-intelligent breed of fish? Or if Chinese emperors during the Ming Dynasty had not enforced a ban on all maritime activities leading to a period of isolationism? Most interestingly of all, what would Here be like if the climate of Ancient Greece had been different? How would this seemingly small change have altered the future progression of mankind? In a slightly cooler Greece would Aristotle, founder of logic, biology and psychology, still have had the same insights just in a more complicated wardrobe? Possibly. More likely, a colder Mediterranean could have allowed the wolverine to expand from its traditional northern ranges and colonize the Balkans. Imagine it: an abundance of wolverines in Ancient Greece. With all this wolverinishness in the air, Aristotle could not have helped but adopt them, with their mandibles of death, luxuriant coat and extremely unpleasant odor, as the natural instrument with which to perform his experiments. The almost certain intertwining of the destinies of modern science and the wolverine could then have led to a Here completely distinct from the one that we see around us today.
By insinuating themselves into the work of Aristotle, wolverines would have influenced all that came after, including Archimedes, who, as he was sitting in his bathtub that fateful day pondering buoyancy, would have, instead of tossing in the suspect headgear of a monarch, tossed in a wolverine. And as he sat frolicking with a wet, and therefore irate, wolverine in his bathtub, Archimedes would have most likely been too preoccupied with his chewed-off face to discover his eponymous principle of hydrostatics. Aqua-science would have then been set back a couple hundred years. However, science is one tough cookie and would have, unlike a hideously deformed Archimedes, eventually overcome this early setback and carried on.
Centuries after Archimedes, the tower of Pisa, that great testament to the sheer ineptitude of man, was constructed, from which, it is said, Galileo dropped two cannonballs in the name of science. Actually, this anecdote is a complete fabrication; the true story being that Giambattista Benedetti proved objects were accelerated independently of their weight in 1553 in a series of experiments performed a long way from Pisa. However, because I am a hopeless romantic who loves the idea of performing science at odd angles, let us assume Giambattista carried out his experiment atop the leaning tower of Pisa. And since he was disproving a premise of Aristotle’s, old Giambattista would have, for the sake of tradition, performed his test with a wolverine and a dead chicken. This experiment would have likely failed when, midway through the descent, the wolverine, after recovering from the initial shock of being dropped from a really high and oddly tilting tower, caught scent of the chicken carcass and promptly devoured it. So crestfallen would poor Giami have been that it never would have occurred to him to repeat the experiment with a slightly less voracious animal – maybe a bunny – and science would once again have been hamstrung by the utter ferocity of the wolverine.
With a wolverine-inspired renaissance metastisizing into a more modern era, it would have been unimaginable for Volta to refute his contemporary Galvani’s claim that electricity was purely a biological phenomenon. A wolverine’s sheer vitality would have made a denial of Galvani’s “animal electric field” theory unassailable and so Volta’s prototypal battery would have consisted of two oppositely charged wolverines connected by a short length of wire instead of zinc and copper electrodes. This discovery, in turn, would have completely altered the burgeoning field of electromagnetism, leading, one would imagine, to some pretty impressive advances that would, perhaps, have even obviated the need for the internal combustion engine.
By the 20th century wolverines would have become so embedded in science that it would have seemed unthinkable to perform any experiments without them. And so when Rutherford set about testing the plum pudding model of the atom, instead of bombarding gold foil with alpha particles, he would have immediately visited his local wolverinery and catapult manufacturer and set about the business of flinging wolverines at some tin foil. As we know from modern experience, not one of the wolverines would have deflected straight back at him thereby supporting, instead of contradicting, the plum pudding model of the atom and leaving a rather unpleasant mess to clean up from the brick wall behind the foil. Consequently, Bohr would have never proposed his own atomic model, Fermi would not have split the atom and the Manhattan project would have never produced the atomic bomb. Instead, mankind would be living under the threat of unimaginable mass devastation wrought by the deployment of the fearsome “Wolverine Bomb” and Rutherford would have quit science and started an apartment cleaning service in suburban Manchester.
Occasionally the best experiments are the ones that are never carried out. Perhaps the most well-known thought experiment is Schrodinger’s cat wherein the state (i.e dead or alive) of a cat, sealed in a box with slowly decaying radioactive material, is unknowable; the cat is said to occupy both states and thus to be both dead and alive. As great as thought experiments are, they’d be even better if put into action and so, inspired by the great tradition of wolverines in science, I have gotten myself a box, some radioactive material and a wolverine. It’s been over an hour now and frankly I’m too terrified to open the box. There’s a wolverine in there that is both alive and dead: a zombie wolverine. I’ve made a huge mistake.
And so it would be quite easy to, starting from a slightly tweaked version of Ancient Greece’s climate, arrive at a completely different Here. A Here where boats are kept afloat by magic, light things fall slower than heavy ones, your iPod is powered by two wolverines taped to your back and the insides of all matter resemble a seasonal confection of dubious quality. But does any of that really mean anything as long as the curtains are nice and the air has a pleasant smell? Yes. A thousand times yes! Because, if you hadn’t noticed, there is a box over there with a freaking undead wolverine in it. You can’t kill what’s already dead.