Pharyngula

Holy books for the UK government!

The British government has been getting a bit mother-henish lately, arresting people for cruelty to religious texts, and clearly has it in mind to provide special legal protection for a certain class of books. My first thought would be that that is insane, books are mere objects that are easily replicable, and providing for a special privilege that we don’t also grant doorknobs or transistor radios or light bulbs is absurd. But a man named Eugenio has a better idea: we need to leap on the sacred book bandwagon.

I am therefore writing to you today to request that legal protection be accorded to all copies of the three editions of J.D. Jackson’s “Classical Electrodynamics” (ISBN 978-0471431329, ISBN 978-0471309321, ISBN 047130932X).

I believe it ticks all the boxes for a sacred text: by making me understand for the first time in all their clarity and power both Maxwell’s equations, the first step towards a Grand Unification theory that would give a single explanation for all physical phenomena in the universe, and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which let me glimpse for the first time the true nature of space, time and causality, it changed my view of the universe and my concept of our place and role in it; it opened my eyes to the beauty and harmony and marvelous complexity of everything that exists; it gave me a clear and understandable explanation of complex and baffling phenomena; it requires lengthy and intensive study under the guidance of learned masters to truly grasp its significance; I tend to swear on it when I need to prove my absolute sincerity and my cat is not around; finally, seeing it defaced, burnt, thrown in a skip, pulped or in any way damaged causes me emotional pain and occasional mild irritation.

I realise it appears to fail the test in important areas – for example, it seems to contain far less made-up stuff than, say, the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon or Dianetics; but in fact, if you look at the exercises section, you’ll find plenty of perfect conductors, infinite planes, and continuous (in the mathematical sense) physical phenomena and bodies. All demonstrably imaginary, as any first-year physics student could easily prove. So in fact there is plenty of made-up stuff, it’s just well hidden, which should make it a better-than-average sacred text.

One thing though might be construed as a flaw – the fact that nowhere in the book, not even in the pre-New Age, 1962 first edition, there is a call to genocide, ethnic cleansing, war or mass rape. In spite of the fact that the title itself refers to classical electrodynamics, there isn’t even a call for the extermination of quantum physicists – something I tended to consider a major oversight in my last year at university, to be completely honest. I’m not sure this will be enough to disqualify it from the status of sacred text, if that should be the case perhaps we could add an appendix with Richard Feynman’s autobiography, which at least contains reference to a couple of punch-ups, as a sort of Saint Dick the Divine’s Apocalypse – although he wasn’t nearly high enough to be compared to the author of the original one, not even in the bit where he tells about Brazil and the bongos.

Although I blew up a considerable number of electrolytic capacitors during lab courses (I tended to get the polarities mixed up with annoying regularity) I haven’t caused any intentional explosive damage to anything/anyone since my mother threw away my chemistry set when I was 12 (and even then, the Kitchen Table Incident was at least partly an accident); therefore, alas, I cannot threaten you with an onslaught of terror, violence and murder in case you should not accede to my request, but I’ll be severely annoyed and possibly even a bit snappy if The Book does not receive the full protection of the law. After all, what matters is how I feel about it, not the actual fact that it is God-, Allah-, Xenu- or Flying Spaghetti Monster-inspired, and I feel very strongly about this.

I am not a physicist, but I’ve read enough of James Clerk Maxwell to be humbled before his obvious holiness, and agree that his works deserve the same or greater protection that we would give to frauds and poseurs like Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed. They never unified electromagnetism; they never even got off their butts long enough to ask the question, “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”

Let’s not stop with Maxwell, either. Give me a minute, I’ll make a list.