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The Webfooted Astronomer - May 2001


From the President's Pen . . . How I Spent My Summer Vacation

By Mary Ingersoll

WHEN I was young, my parents' idea of a great summer vacation was to pack up the '64 Ford and drive. We traversed through most of the Western half of the U.S., never going further east than Kansas. We'd stop off at exciting places such as the Sea Lion Caves, the Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon, and drive like maniacs through the Mojave Desert (the Ford did not have air conditioning).

Most of the time my Dad would stop when I asked him to, but he'd only do so if he felt there was something there that would satisfy him as well. Mom seemed to just be along for the ride; she loved watching the scenery go by. I played the adventurer and wanted to see everything! Most of the time there was harmony, but on one particular excursion our joyful holiday was disrupted by: The Two-Headed Snake.

We were driving through a rather barren part of the country. Flat, dry, brown. The freeway extending straight ahead with no turn left or right for hundreds of miles. The scenery was "enhanced" by a forest of weathered billboards on both sides of the road, enticing travelers to many businesses and amenities that lay ahead. The ride was boring and reading the signs was the only distraction. And, then, there it was: "Snake Pit Ahead. See the only two-headed snake in existence!" Wow! That was a major claim. I just had to see that!

The conversation went something like this:
"Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad! Let's go see the two-headed snake!"
"Nah. It's probably just a rubber snake that they glued an extra head on to."
"What?! How do you know?"
"I've seen similar attractions before. It's just a way to get good money out of foolish people."
"But Dad, it's a two-headed snake! They can't say that on the billboards if it's not true."
"Sometimes the billboards lie."
"But Dad, we don't know that if we don't go and see."
"I'm not wasting my money on junk."
"But you don't know it's junk."
"Yes I do. Now stop arguing."
Then Mom would come up with the Great Mom Line, "Listen to your Dad. He knows better."

I was figuratively struck down and left to bleed as I watched the chain of signs informing me that the two-headed snake was "50 miles ahead". . . then "20 miles ahead" . . . then only "5 miles ahead." As we eventually drove passed, I desperately attempted to see any proof of my Dad's theory. I saw lots of cars parked around a few old, brown buildings. Other people had stopped to look. But according to Dad's theory, they were the fools, and we were the smart guys. But were we really?

Many years later I caught a TV show about various tourist attractions around the U.S., and they had a reporter check out the Snake Pit and the notorious two-headed snake.

Turns out that the snake was not made of rubber but of real snake. The proprietor of the Snake Pit raised rattlesnakes and one day this two-headed wonder hatched from its egg and became his main attraction. When it died of old age, he had it stuffed and mounted. I discovered that had I gone to the site on the day when my Dad drove by I could have seen it alive.

Galileo Galilei's father, Vincenzio, challenged music theories of his time. He wrote a book defending his position, but the publication of the book was prevented by those who did not agree with his philosophy. "It appears to me," Vincenzio stated in his Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music, "that they who in proof of any assertion rely simply on the weight of authority, without adducing any argument in support of it, act very absurdly. I, on the contrary, wish to be allowed freely to question and freely to answer you without any sort of adulation, as well becomes those who are in search of truth."

Vincenzio's book was eventually printed, and Galileo learned that authority can be challenged when the hard evidence clearly proves to be correct. Later Galileo challenged the political authorities of his generation. The issue was not music this time, but a challenge to a theory that was promoted as fact by the cultural and political authorities.

How willing are we to investigate and research a new concept or theory that counters our own biases? Do we encourage debate, or do we suppress it and call it "junk"? I remember reading about the early explorers of Australia who brought drawings of new and odd animals to the scientific community in England. They were accused of having drunk too much rum. It was years later that their reports were finally confirmed and accepted. Einstein is one of my heroes because he was not so prideful that he was unwilling to change his theories when confronted with collected data that proved them wrong.

I would truly hope that our present generation has not fallen prey to preconceived notions that impair us from doing good, intellectual investigations. I am not advocating that we challenge all authority, but rather challenge authority that relies on nothing more than its own bias to preserve a flawed theory to maintain its own status. All theories should remain open to debate, and that debate should be focused on sound evidence and good reasoning. Let us be wary of rubber snakes, but let us also be wary of premature conjectures.

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