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Thursday, 21 November 2013

All about answers

 I do apologise: I have been off writing a book. I have mentioned before that I am working towards a series of e-books under the series title Not Your Usual... and so I have been looking in other directions than to this blog.

The first batch reflects a cleaning-out of my files and a couple of drafts as well, plus a couple of things that I thought needed to be said. The initial release will include Not Your Usual Bushrangers, Not Your Usual Australian Hero (tall tales about Crooked Mick of the Speewah), Not Your Usual Gold Seekers (some nuts and bolts background to the Australian gold rush), Not Your Usual War Poems (going beyond 'Flanders Fields'), Not Your Usual Quotations (science quotations of a delectable kind), and Not Your Usual Australian Verse (well, it does actually include all the old favourites, but also a great deal of lesser-known stuff. 

For balance, I needed to get one more title to reflect the fact that I really am a science writer. Therein hangs a tale: I was using material previously researched and in most cases drafted, so it was mainly assembly and editing, and it went ahead very fast. I got to 330,000 words, equal to six trade paperbacks, and knew there was a lot more to come, so I rejigged the existing content into four volumes—with at least two more to come, and I have now cleaned up the first volume of Not Your Usual Science.

There is still some technical stuff and some  editing to do, but I am almost there. Anyhow, Not Your Usual Science is mainly about how we found answers to many of our questions, so here are a few musings on answers.

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In Old English, an answer was a reply made to a legal charge, a form of defence. Literally, andswaru was taken from two roots: and, meaning 'against', and swarâ, meaning 'swear', so to an Anglo-Saxon, an answer was a 'swearing against', but these days, we see it as a reply to a question or a response to an examination question.

It can also be a return hit in fencing, while to a musician, an answer is a part of a fugue, the name given to the subject when it is sung by the alto and the bass, but to dive further into this would be to dig into muddy technical waters which is a waste of time, as the holes are unstable.

Returning to crime and legalities, we have also injected a sense of personal responsibility into the word when we talk about somebody being answerable for something.

For the most part, we may answer a description, and we may answer a telephone, but most other answers are only offered in response to a question.

The computer community alone stands out in one sense, publishing lists of answers as FAQs, or frequently asked questions, rather than as FSAs, or frequently-sought answers.

Even in those pre-Norman days, the word was used in the main modern sense, and we will find terms like answaru liðe, literally a lithe answer, but more reliably, a soft or gentle answer, in the sense intended in the book of Proverbs, where we are told that a soft answer, an answaru liðe, turneth away wrath.

The 'and-' prefix is usually considered not to appear in any other words these days, but a trawl through Old English reveals a few interesting parallels, like and-efn which is equivalent to our 'uneven' in the sense of 'not equal'. The term and-git means intellect or understanding, which we might suspect has something to do with the modern English derogatory term 'git'. Certainly andgit-leás means 'foolish, so it may be that, by stripping off the negatives fore and aft, we got to a trimmed-down 'git'.

Some hint of a different sense of 'answer' appears in A Comedy of Errors, where we find this exchange in Act IV, scene i:
My business cannot brook this dalliance.

Good sir, say whe'r you'll answer me or no;
 If not, I'll leave him to the officer.

I answer you! What should I answer you?

The money that you owe me for the chain.
Here, the answer was a payment in response to the delivery of a chain, but this is a Shakespearean comedy, and identical twins are involved, so, well, you get the picture, and I am not answerable for it.

Gertrude Stein, of course, knew that answers are not everything. According to her biography, her last words were "What is the answer?" and after a pause, ". . . In that case, what is the question?"

This was a lesson that Douglas Adams learned well when he first published the answer to life, the universe and everything as "42", and then later published "the question" as "what do you get when you multiply 6 by 9?"

Curiously, the product of 6 and 9 is 42, provided you are counting in base-13 notation, where "42" means, in our more normal base-10 mathematics, 4 x 13 + 2 = 54 (base-10).

Mathematicians around the world are still trying to decide if this use of the tridecimal number system has any real value, perhaps as an indication of the number of digits found in mice when they are viewed in six dimensions.

How far we have come since the days when scholars would debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin! Now we are more likely to seek the number of pins that can dance on the head of an angel.

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