On Friendship, Superstition, and Madness

So I’ve been back in the UK from Suriname for around two weeks now, and had been struggling to think of something to write about. Fortunately, that’s now changed.

I was talking to a friend of a friend recently, who I’d only just met, and they were very interested in the fact that I studied geology.  We spoke for a while about rocks, in particular crystals, until they said something that I wasn’t expecting, viz. “gemstones bring out different energies in humans”, and that “white crystal” is “good for thinking and the brain”.  Needless to say, that brought the geological conversation to a rather abrupt halt, and the subject was promptly changed.  As with everything in this life, there’s a relevant scene from Peep Show.

Fast forward a few days, and we find I’ve mentioned this particular discourse, and how it’s clearly a ridiculous concept, to my good friend TKC.  She said that from her neck of the woods, a lot of people believe the same thing, and that lots of her course mates wear crystal bracelets in an attempt to “improve love and relationships”. The ensuing discussion was interesting and thought provoking.

She compared it to other harmless superstitions, such as making a wish when one cuts a birthday cake, which was a fair point. However, it still bothered me.  The bring out “energies” in humans point, it seemed almost identical to homeopathy.  This nebulous and indistinct mechanism that’s not tangible in any fashion which affects one’s health (or magic for want of a better word).  It goes without saying that having studied minerals to a masters degree level, I’m less than convinced by the ability of crystals to have such health effects on humans.  Indeed, the only heath effects from “white crystal” I can think of off the top of my head would be the rather unpleasant ones that will eventually kill you from having a lots of chrysotile/tremolite knocking about.  In all likelihood, this “white crystal” is probably quartz, mainly because it’s cheap and very abundant (i.e. it’s sand).

This was where revelation the first came in.  Are different superstitions more “legitimate” depending on your cultural origin? The answer of course has to be yes.  While in the UK crystal energy fields aren’t widely subscribed to as a concept, things like walking under ladders being unlucky, black cats being lucky, and Friday the 13th being bad are quite commonly believed.  I can think of examples in my own family where superstitions are closely held beliefs (or at least appear to be).  One relative is convinced that water divining is real, while another strongly disapproved when I brought a peacock feather into the house (I was unaware that they were unlucky) – said feather was promptly destroyed in case you were wondering!  Indeed, quite a few warn me not to “tempt fate”, and a part of me agrees with them, even though there’s clearly no reason to, giving rise to an interesting internal argument between the rational and irrational.

Considering the crystal energy superstition more carefully, there does appear to be a purpose to it.  While the crystal itself is clearly inert (good luck getting quartz to react with most things), one could argue that the psychological effect of having the belief could be positive, a sort of placebo if you will.  If the belief that the crystal can help improve one’s life is able to effect a subconscious improvement in for example, someone’s confidence, then that would be a positive outcome.

Obviously this whole analysis is rocky territory (geological pun very much intended), as organised religion is a small step away from superstitious beliefs.  My argument would be that crystals are just crystals, and peacock feathers are just peacock feathers.  Given that they are tangible and examinable, one can prove there’s no “energy” etc. (four years studying pretty much every aspect of crystals imaginable is enough to last a lifetime – kudos to my geologist friends reading this who are doing Ph.Ds, you guys are properly hardcore!), whereas the beliefs behind organised religion aren’t tangible, and therefore cannot be examined in the same fashion.  I admit this leaves me wide open to accusations of hypocrisy, but so be it (for those of you who don’t know me personally, this is where I point out that I am a Christian)!

However, the point remained, and that is why did I care?  It’s a good question, just why do I care?  After all, I’m a great believer in not poking one’s nose into other people’s business when it comes to beliefs, so long as they aren’t detrimental to others.  The answer to that is of course rather simple, and that is because I’m a scientist. On a brief aside, one of my earliest memories of being interested in science was when I was around four years old.  My mother had purchased an encyclopædia (this one) for a family friend’s daughter a couple of years younger than me.  I had a quick flick through, and found the pages on electricity particularly interesting.  I promptly begged for a copy of my own, which I eventually got when Christmas came around – I still have it somewhere in fact.  Anyway, I digress.

More accurately, I’m a geologist, and since embarking on my geological studies just over four years ago, geology has become rather a central tenet of my life.  As a result, I care about it quite a lot, and want people to learn about it and understand it too, meaning that when things like this crystal energy stuff pop up, ideally I’d be able to dispel that, stick to SCIENCE and show them how things really are (presumably this is how my militant atheist friends feel a lot of the time). At this point, revelation the second rears its ugly head.  If I was so disparaging about “crystal energy” because I know it to be total nonsense and care about geology, then that flags up an unfortunate parallel. There’s someone else who’s disparaging about beliefs, because they care about biology.  Yep, that’d be Richard Dawkins. Personally I’m not a fan of his.  Yes he’s a good scientist, but also comes across as intolerant, insensitive, and patronising. Certainly not someone I’d desire to emulate, even remotely.

The question of how to sensibly discuss mineralogy and crystallography with subscribers to the crystal energy idea remains unanswered.  In fact, there isn’t an answer.  Similar problems of course arise when discussing evolution with creationists, the authenticity of the moon landings with conspiracy theorists, and the concept of horoscopes with adherents to astrology.  While it may be difficult to reconcile the fact that some people think different crystals can influence wealth/love/relationships/health/etc. with scientific mineralogical observations proving there’s no such influence, the implication is that there is not a lot that can be done.

So what have we learned here?  Several things in fact. Firstly that superstitions vary from culture to culture, what seems totally normal for one can appear totally ridiculous in another.  Secondly that science isn’t always the answer (or sensu stricto in this case, it’s the psychological element that needs consideration rather than the mineralogical one if an attempt rationalise this superstition is to be made).  Finally we learn that superstitions, while irrational, are actually quite interesting to consider in their cultural and historical contexts from an anthropological perspective.

In that respect, (i.e. the act of believing in the crystal itself provides a subconscious change in one’s confidence/attitude) it is infinitely more legitimate than many common superstitions in this country (black cats/magpies/peacock feathers/horseshoes anyone?).  However, a fair few of these have to be taken in their historical context.  One such example would be the “smashing a mirror gives seven years’ bad luck” idea, which stems from the time when wages were low, and mirrors were obnoxiously expensive (and could cost seven years’ wages).  Perhaps the finding of a four leaf clover may be considered good luck as finding one itself is rare, implying that one is lucky?

As with many things, the matter is substantially more complex than it first appears, and thinking it through as above, I feel a bit more open minded and enlightened.  Having said that, there’s clearly no merit to these crystal superstitions from any scientific point of view (aside from the potential placebo related psychological side effects).  I still (obviously) disagree with it, but it makes more sense to me now.

I know that’s quite a heavy post for a Friday, particularly the one before Christmas, so here’s a video of Gandalf teaching the Cookie Monster self control to take the edge off.  You’re welcome.

Another Surreal Evening

I’ve started to have a realisation that going out with friends in what at first appear to be normal nights out in London usually end up having rather bizarre and surreal conclusions.  Don’t get me wrong, they certainly make life more interesting, and allows one to increase one’s repertoire of dinner party anecdotes.  The catch is of course that it makes the evening slightly more tiring than is often initially planned!

Take a few weeks ago for example, when JW visited London, and JG and I went out to a bar we know (colloquially christened “Creepy Joe’s” by JW).  As with any other night, we started off with a few beers (and enjoyed the excellent music “Creepy Joe’s” had to offer – 70s and 80s rock for the most part).  Anyway, as the night drew on, and the last trains departed, the bar got more and more busy.  The good thing about busy bars is that you meet some rather interesting characters.  In this instance, the character in question was slightly intimidating at a first glance, with long dark hair and a leather jacket.  He was a Portuguese chap who formerly worked for the MoD. He was enjoying his last few weeks of freedom – quite literally as it happened – he got sacked from the MoD and was due a stretch in chokey for having a rather vicious fight with some Polish gent apparently.  I thought it prudent not to ask for details, but he seemed quite charming.

Anyway, as is often the inevitable conclusion, owing to all the public transport being shut at night, I had no way of getting back to Woking, so I opted to walk to London Bridge (from “Creepy Joe’s” – nearest tube: Angel) to get a train back to my parents’ home (I was visiting them anyway the next day).  Unfortunately for muggins here (who’d forgotten), London Bridge was closed, and so it was a rather lengthy walk from there to Victoria for the train.  It did mean I got to walk past Parliament at half three, which was beautiful as ever.

Moving on to a few weeks later (i.e. last night), I was out with some ancient friends (known for ~18/19 years ish), which was a lovely catch up as I’d not seen them for a while.  After they all dispersed, I went to see some university friends at another pub nearby.  We headed back to one of their flats and watched some TV (because why not?).  At this stage someone suggested going out to a club which was “really good”.  A few minutes later, we got there, and discovered it wasn’t “really good” (think Fifth Form “prom” meets college bop).  It was after this that things came to their inevitable surreal conclusion.

Walking back from around Tottenham Court Road to Waterloo (where said friend’s flat is), we encountered a young American student who had lost her friends (and was not really in a fit state to walk, let alone be left by herself, certainly not at half two in the morning in Central London).  She asked us where Piccadilly Circus was as her friends were waiting there for her.  As it wasn’t too far, I offered to take her and waved goodbye to my friends, saying I’d catch up with them later (as the last trains had left, I’d been offered the floor of the flat to sleep on that night).  Anyway, my new charge soon realised her friends were not in fact waiting at Piccadilly Circus and asked if I’d mind helping her home.  Naturally I agreed (I thought it better than for her to be on the streets alone before being picked up and put in a cell overnight to sober up or worse) and asked where she lived. The reply “Baron’s Court” was not quite the response I was hoping for, given that Hammersmith is a bit of a walk from the West End (~4 miles away), but she was insistent that that was where she lived and she knew her way back from the tube station.  Clearly, I was in for a long night!  Anyway, 90 minutes later, just past Gloucester Road tube station, there was an epiphany (she had sobered up a bit at this point – nothing a good spot of fresh air can’t fix eh?).  Baron’s Court was in fact not where she lived, instead she lived in an exceptionally similarly named Hall of Residence, by Russell Square tube station. Again as before, this was not the response I was hoping for.  Cue another 4 mile walk back towards Central London.

For those of you who aren’t particularly familiar with London geography, here’s a handy map showing the magnitude of the error in all its cartographical glory!:

The green circle shows where I found her, while the red ones show the dichotomy in where we heading.  The blue star shows how far we got before she realised the mistake.  (Image: Google Maps with own annotations).  Click to enlarge

The green circle shows where I found her, while the red ones show the dichotomy in where we originally heading, compared to where she actually lived. The blue star shows how far we got before she realised the mistake. (Image: Google Maps with own annotations). Click to enlarge

Eventually (at half past five in the morning) we arrived and I deposited her with the porters who were (rather understandably) slightly concerned by her disappearance (to the extent that they’d declared her missing to the Met).  Luckily though, all’s well that ends well, and they were grateful for my assistance.  I bade them all farewell and was on my way (to Waterloo to collect my stuff from that flat).

Unfortunately (or rather, obviously) when I arrived at a quarter past six in the morning, I couldn’t get in, so I had to call one of my friends sleeping there (who wasn’t especially thrilled of course – HL I really really owe you one for letting me in)!  I collected my stuff and decided that it was time to head home.  A few minutes later, I was on the 6:30 train to Southampton (Woking was the second stop thank goodness), and I was back in my own bed just as the sun was rising. Thank goodness it’s the weekend and I can have a quiet day!

So what have we learned from these two incidents?  Well first of all it is that strange and peculiar things seem to happen to me on a night out with friends.  Life does have a tendency to be more bizarre these days (certainly when one combines beer, late nights, and Central London).  The second lesson to be taken from this is that London is a BIG city.  Walking it, while exceptionally scenic, does have an element of making you somewhat knackered.  I’ll be honest, 24 hour tubes from next year will make a great difference!  Seeing the City, Parliament, and all that business in the middle of the night is absolutely stunning though.

Oh, and before you ask, I never did catch her name.