Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ned Land’s Healthy Skepticism

Through all my years growing up, my dad liked to go to the library. He’d check stock prices in the latest edition of the Wall Street Journal. He’d read some news and look things up in an encyclopedia. And then he would probably wander the fiction stacks and find a spy novel or thriller by perhaps Martin Caidin or Frederick Forsyth. I know he did these things because from the time I was about five years old, he took me with him.

My five-year-old self tried to find interest in his market research, and he tried to explain the charts to me. But eventually I always gave up, wandered to the juvenile section, and found a stack of books to read until Dad decided sit was time to go home. On one trip, tired of sixty-four page books with color illustrations on every page, I looked around and found something thicker. “It’s time for me to read a real book,” I thought. “This way I won’t need a stack; one book will last me all evening: all the way until Dad is finished with his business.” I don’t remember why I picked the book I did. But I can never forget the fantastic title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

I took it over to the table where my dad was sitting and seated myself in the chair next to his, hoping he’d see the sheer size of my mature ambition. “I think it’s about a submarine that goes really, really deep,” I explained when he glanced over. “No, the title means that it travels that distance horizontally while it’s under the surface,” he corrected me, “not that it goes down that far.” OK, not quite so amazing. But still it sounded good, so I opened up the cover and began to read.

What a shock that first page dealt me. First off, the story started on page 5 or 9 or something, which I didn’t understand. Then I read the first sentence: “The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” Oh, boy. This might take more than one evening. I could read that sentence when I was five, but I had no way of understanding any of it. Still, I tried. I think I made it through about a page and a half while Dad found a way to increase his quarterly earnings by a few thousand.

When I came back to the book in my teen years, I understood it and loved it. At least I thought I understood it. But recently I’ve been listening to Verne’s marvelous underwater tale in the car on the way to and from work, and I suspect that I didn’t totally understand the purpose of harpooner Ned Land. Of course the scientist needs some muscle on his journey. Professor Lidenbrock took Hans to the Centre of the Earth, so naturally Professor Aronnax needs Ned Land.

But Ned provides more than brawn to Aronnax’s brain. Ned has thoughts and reasoning of his own that the Professor needs to hear. In many a disaster flick from the last few decades, a scientist predicts the calamity. No one believes him, of course, or there would be no disaster and hence no story to depict. In the movies, though, the scientist is always right in the end. Not so with Verne! More insightful than Hollywood producers, the great science-fiction writer has his scientist make mistakes.

When the world of the 1860s first experiences a strange phosphorescent object racing through the globe’s oceans and piercing the sides of approaching ships, Aronnax announces to the nations, backed by the credentials of Science and the irrefutable structure of Logic, that the phenomenon is a living creature, not a ship. But when the good professor meets Ned, he finds an unschooled fellow who, seeming not to recognize the authority of Science and Logic, doesn’t agree with his conclusion.
 "But, Ned, you, a whaler by profession, familiarised with all the great marine mammalia—YOU ought to be the last to doubt under such circumstances!" 
"That is just what deceives you, Professor," replied Ned. "As a whaler I have followed many a cetacean, harpooned a great number, and killed several; but, however strong or well-armed they may have been, neither their tails nor their weapons would have been able even to scratch the iron plates of a steamer."
Of course, it’s the uneducated fisherman who’s right, not the Scientist. Ah! Who’s using observation and logic now, Professor Aronnax?

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