Ever since I read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", this phrase has been echoing in my head. How typical of me. I read a book describing the history and possible future of our understanding of the laws which govern our universe, and what do I take from it? Two things, and two things only:

  1. The completely trippy concept that black holes, aren't black at all and moreover are slowly "evaporating" at the quantum level (put that in your pipe and smoke it!)
  2. the amusing anecdote used to open book.

Various internet sources suggest a wide range of details, but the point of the story remains the same. Here's my version of it:

A well known scientist has just finished a public lecture on cosmology, describing how the Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon orbits the Earth, and even the sun itself orbits around the galactic center along with billions of other stars which constitute our galaxy. At the end of the lecture an old woman in the back stands up and says, "What you've told us is rubbish! I happen to know the world is a flat plate resting on the back of four gigantic elephants!"

"And what do the elephants stand on?" says the scientist, thinking to foil her.

She crows back, "Why, on the back of an even larger turtle, of course!"

"And what does the turtle stand on?" he continues, sure he has her now.

"On the back of another turtle!"

"And what does that turtle stand on?" asks the scientist, now growing exasperated.

"It's no use, young man," the old woman replies brightly, "it's turtles all the way down!"

Hawking uses a shorter version to open his book. He assumes the concept of a flat earth supported by turtles will seem amusing and absurd to everyone who reads it. This allows him to ask how they know it's absurd and then spend the rest of the book answering that question (and others).

It stuck with me, however, for an entirely different reason - because Hawking's assumption is wrong. I know people who believe the devil put dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith. I know other people who are quite vocal about the "hoax of carbon dating". I'm afraid to ask, but I'm sure I even know a few people who agree with the old woman about the turtles. Given the current political climate of bioterrorism and nuclear saber-rattling, apparently some of the people in power agree with her, too.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998)
"Turtles all the way down", http://andstuff.org/TurtlesAllTheWayDown (2003-Dec-22)