Saturday, February 27, 2010


Such a lovely word really.  Yes.  You read it and are snatched back to seventh grade – fourth or fifth if you’re lucky.  There you were.  Bright eyed.  Tail all bushy-ed.  Belighted by the curiosity of your empty, open mind, and then your science teacher drops it on you: hypothesis.

It’s part of an assignment.  It’s a blank you have to fill in.  There are other parts of the “Scientific Method” that you have to learn as well.  I forget all of the others.  I expect you do as well.  But you remember “Hypothesis” don’t you?  Do you remember what it is?  Yes?  Of, course.  There it is, tripping through your thoughts, “An Educated Guess”, that’s what you filled in on that paper, long discarded, that was put in the metal tray on the desk of that teacher you’ve never forgotten.

Here I am.  Sitting watching the Jeremy Brett series of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  I’ve not seen Monsieur Downey Jr.’s effort, but it will be a hard business to supplant Mr. Brett in the acquittal of the role.  And there he is.  Milling about.  Someone else is there in this episode.  Holmes’s brother Mycroft (the more intelligent of the two apparently) is floating about in the background.  And “the youth” utters the word: Hypothesis.

“He writes like a drunken crab,” exclaims Holmes and the tosses off the paper to Watson, “Here.  Doctors are more accustomed to deciphering hieroglyphics than I.” 

It’s a letter from Mycroft.  I forget what it says.  But there’s a moment when Doyle drops into the narrative the idea that Holmes has a SMARTER brother.  That’s a touch of perfect genius.  And also perfectly illustrative of the courage – yes what I want really to write is “Balls” – that Doyle showed throughout his cultivation of the Holmes story arc.  But back to the subject: Hypothesis.

An educated guess.  Yes.  Stop.  Look around you.  Look at the object you’re reading.  Look at everything you know in the 21st century in America or wherever.  It all traces itself back to “An Educated Guess”.  A marvelous phrase.  It too is a perfect thing.  It means everything, and at once is entirely self contradictory.  “Educated” indicates a base of knowledge – a grasp of things understood and known.  “Guess”, well that pretty much declares its own “at loose ends” hippydom, doesn’t it?  Catch as catch can.  “We’ll see what comes of it.  No worries.”

A rich, childless man coined the term, I recon.  Calculation can be learned.  But it takes an entire absence of obligation and responsibility to be “Careless” after a certain age.  And it takes a certain amount of age to stockpile the smarts.  So the discoveries are made.  They are made by filling yourself with a healthy amount of “What is” “What’s known”  - then… then you take the leap, don’t you.? You… - Guess.  It’s a handful of crystal-ballfull fortunetelling.  And the bold-hearted go right on in.  Fearful and curious.  Probably scared to death.

They hypothesize.  And they’re a little bit, or a big bit, wrong.  Then they do it again.  They… hypothesize, but maybe now a little bit smarter for their error.  And for knowing that it’s an error.  Sooner or later, enough errors are made within the purview of the educated inquisitors,  that things are learned and something useful comes of the whole business.  Enjoy your gizmos and gadgets. 

But remember, there are two important things: Education, and the Courage to chance “failure”.  Fill the vessel, then spill it out.  See how it lands.  Then pack it back in, and throw it back out onto the floor until it makes some kind of sense.  Hypothesize… if you dare.

The great thing is that, at the end of the day, dear ol’ Mycroft is astounded by the insight of his dumber, younger, little brother.  He never could have guessed someone so young could be so smart, so clever.  Their little gang plods off to the Diogenes Club.  Apparently oysters are on the menu.  There’s an “R” in the month, and Mycroft’s buyin’.

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