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Sunday, February 25, 2024

On the Couch: Awe you can count on

A mosaic image, one of the largest ever taken by Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope, of the Crab Nebula. Picture: Nasa

Numbers, bru. You’ve just got to love ’em.

Secret, mystical worlds lurk behind them, a turnkey awaiting mental wizardry to unlock.

Some people have that magic maths ability. Others lurk, watching with fascination but having mental black holes as impenetrable as any found in the universe.

For millennia, humans have cast their eyes skyward and wondered what was there. Curiosity, exploration and new tools and technologies continuously added to our understanding of our home and revealed the vastness of what surrounded it.

Multibillion-dollar projects sent probes, telescopes, Rovers and Voyagers farther and farther into what used to be considered a black void to find out more.

Magnificent pictures, vibrantly coloured, have come back to Earth for brilliant people to analyse what goes on in space and the universe.

Our own square kilometre array, or SKA, project is part of the quest to learn everything we can, even, perhaps, how we came into being.

All of these things were brought to life by numbers. Huge, pages-long sums that, in the right brains and minds, are like symphonies or literary treasures waiting to be discovered.

But I am in the mental black hole category, lurking on the outskirts of these incredible discoveries, awed by the magnificent beauty of the universe, but unable to understand any of it.

I subscribe to more than a few science newsletters to get the latest developments and breathtaking pictures from our exploration of space. I even own and have read Stephen Hawkins’ “A Brief History of Time”, the so-called layman’s guide to understanding the cosmos and space and time. It felt much like one of our millions of pupils who read without comprehension must feel. Ditto with the newsletters, but the fascination remains, along with the admiration and envy of those who “get it”.

Simple arithmetic stumps me, and digital calculations ‒ ie counting on fingers and toes ‒ are my go-to tools. Numbers, and what they mean, mean nothing.

The very first story I subbed in the olden days involved Tom Selleck’s baby. Our wire service used US measurements so the baby was reported to have weighed x number of pounds. My conversion ‒ knowing I sucked at figures and taking extra care ‒ reported the kid weighed 5.8 kilometres. The boss sub-editors really chewed me out.

Now I am grateful for the internet’s conversion tables, but I still faithfully write them down on paper and read them several times before using them in a story.

Greater minds have been occupied with unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP), or UFOs as most people know them. They have been back in the news since “spy balloons” were shot down in America and a recent claim by retired Air Force Major David Grusch that the US government was secretly keeping the remains of alien spacecraft and alien bodies. The US Congress even held a hearing to establish what was going on. Still no real clue, it seems.

Frankly, if I was a passenger on a UFO I would take one look at the mess of humanity on Earth and make a hard-left. Even if I can’t do the sums to get us to another planet, I’d sure enjoy the ride through those beautiful celestial bodies.

  • Lindsay Slogrove is news editor

The Independent on Saturday

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