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.

Plugholes

I was thinking the other day about something my father said to me before I left for Chile, namely for me to “look out for the different direction that water flows down the plughole in the southern hemisphere”.  Once I started to think more and more, I felt somewhat dubious with respect to the veracity of this “fact”.  Why should water flow in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere to the northern?

Let’s take a look at the facts for a bit.  Ok, we can safely assume that everywhere on the Earth has equal gravitation strength (yes there are minor anomalies, but they’re negligible in this context).  Additionally, the physical properties of water are pretty well known and fixed.

From these pieces of information, taking the assumption that all plugholes are of equal size, then we may conclude that all water flows out of the sink at the same rate.  From here we can consider two different options.

First, if we assume that the rotation rate of the water varies according to latitude, then at the equator, in order to flow differently at southern latitudes, it must flow straight down (so that south of the equator, it would flow the opposite way).  Not convinced that at the equator, every plughole has no rotation? No, me neither.  What factor would cause this anyway?

Our second possibility is even more ridiculous.  If we assume that the rotation rate of the water is also fixed, with only the direction varying, then the following should happen.  In the northern hemisphere, water would (for the sake of argument) rotate at 10 rpm in a clockwise fashion, while in the southern hemisphere, it would be 10 rpm anticlockwise (but both sinks would lose an equal volume of water per unit time).  If we consider the limit as latitude tends to 0 degrees, then at 1 metre north of the equator, the water would rotate differently to that found at 1 metre south of the equator, yet be exactly the same as the water found well within the arctic circle, several thousand miles away.

The most bizarre example would be the case where the equator bisects your plughole.  Assuming that water in the northern and southern hemispheres flows in different directions, the water in this case would rotate in two different directions at once.

Feel free to prove me wrong, but don’t quote the “Coriolis effect”.  For that to be the cause you need a plug the size of a hurricane (which somehow I doubt you possess), or to have extremely sensitive and tightly controlled laboratory conditions.