Hoo dun it? Maybe, and maybe not

To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by Dippy the Dinosaur, now in his (or her) last month at Norwich Cathedral. The sheer size was certainly impressive, but then I discovered that it wasn’t a real dinosaur. It wasn’t even real dinosaur bones – just plaster casts. And from several different dinosaurs, apparently.

Emerging latish from a Free Church background, I have always had my doubts about church relics, but this was not even close. St Dippy? I don’t think so.

I had a similar revelation when I visited a museum at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and saw what I thought was breath-taking workmanship on weapons and other artefacts from the 6th and 7th centuries AD, around the time of the jolly King Raedwald and his unnamed queen. My wife then pointed out that they were reconstructions.

You may think I was a bit naive to expect more, especially given my reputation for scepticism. But if I am told that a number of huge mounds in a field contain (or once contained) ships, bodies, gold and silver, what am I supposed to think? Do I just take their word for it?

I’ve always thought that if you want to build up a reputation as a scientist, the two obvious fields to be in are archaeology and geology. Both deal with the distant past (the difference being one of scale), and so no-one is going to be around to say you’re wrong. You can come up with any theory you like, especially if it’s more or less the same as everyone else’s.

This may be a rather sweeping conclusion, but geology at least seems to be entirely based on the theory of uniformitarianism – which states that the same natural laws and processes observable today have always been in operation on Earth and in the universe, and at the same rate. To me this is quite absurd. How do we know? We don’t.

This principle is also the key to dating; so it spills over into archaeology. It probably spills over into other things as well, which would explain statistics. Or maybe that’s a conspiracy theory.

Still, it reminds me of a quote from someone called Barnabas: “I would feel infinitely more comfortable in your presence if you would agree to treat gravity as a law, rather than one of a number of suggested options.”

Maybe some scientific laws survive only because we agree to treat them as laws. Is it time to think of other options?