Register Monday | June 26 | 2017

Miracles Are Arbitrary and Meaningless

Assuming that I'm the archetype, miracles occur roughly every three to four months in the life of the average person. I mean real miracles, not childbirth or finding your keys. If you haven't observed any real miracles in your life it may be that you've already made up your mind and now you have to think with it. But more likely it is because when miracles do happen they are so arbitrary and meaningless that you don't recognize them for what they are: the arbitrary and meaningless acts of an all-powerful being who wants to entertain and disturb you.

The first miracle that I really examined occurred in the Old Port of Montreal, where my then-girlfriend and I were drinking a bottle of wine at a quiet place on the docks. When we finished, we decided to lob the bottle into the St. Lawrence. The cork was missing, however, so we stuffed the neck with bits of gravel wrapped in leaves. When we let fly, the bottle arced through the sombre, evening air, struck the brackish water with a splash and... sank. Neither did it bob nor float, not even once.

Was it a miracle? Yes. A bottle full of air floats, no matter what. It doesn't sink ever. Because air is lighter than water, it's that simple. That being so, we nevertheless decided to pursue the matter with more scientific rigor, so we repeated the maneuver under identical circumstances a month later—the neck securely stoppered with leaves and gravel—and of course the bottle popped right back up and floated desolately downriver.

I asked Dr. Stephen Pollaine, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, what he thought could have caused the first bottle to sink. He responded with mulish skepticism: "Yes, a leaky cork—or maybe the cork popped out." Unfortunately, he neglected to send me any hard evidence for the burr he keeps in his underwear. Otherwise I might have bothered to inform him that I've since thrown totally uncorked bottles into the Lachine Canal and they all floated for some distance before sinking. Honestly, who's ever heard of a leaky cork?

Dr. Brandt Kehoe, a physicist at California State University in Fresno, was less terrified by the prospect of having his shaky world-view crushed by the facts. He wrote, "Without examining the bottles I can only guess. Wine bottles come in very different weights. If the bottle is heavy enough, it will sink even when corked full of air." Here is a scent of open-mindedeness, but I have to wonder where one finds these uncommonly hefty wine bottles he's referring to. I can assure you, we weren't drinking out of a stone jug. It was good old depanneur wine and the bottle was of a modest weight.

Since that time, I have experienced several other miracles. Once my toilet exploded without any provocation as I was brushing my teeth. Another time I was chasing a cat and it disappeared. These are true stories that must be accepted on faith, or if not faith, at least a small measure of good humour. Faith is the assurance that we don't already know everything. Humour is the victory of reality over banality. Together they form an antithesis to cynicism, which is itself a kind of miracle. But not a real one.

(From What Comes To Mind.)

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