The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 20 Apr 2006

The One Theory to Explain Everything
One of Matt Groening's Life in Hell comics had a list of the nine teachers to beware of. The one I remember is the teacher who has "one theory to explain everything". The cartoon depicted this teacher with wild, staring eyes, and a speech balloon that said "The nation that controls magnesium controls the world!"

(This theory, of course, is idiotic. They key element, as I mentioned on Saturday, is radioactive potassium. What good is a crazy theory that doesn't involve nuclear energy?)

The big problem with this teacher is that he will expect you to discourse on the One Theory on the final exam. You'll get a final exam question like "explain the significance of magnesium in the 1993 Oslo accords" or "how would the course of World War II been changed if Chile had had access to sufficient supplies of high-grade magnesium ore" or just "Explain how magnesium has been the most important factor in determining the course of history." Or it's phrased the other way round: "what is the most important factor in determining the course of history?" and then if you happened to miss the class in which the professor had his insane rant about magnesium, you're doomed.

But the joke is not as poignant for me as it is for some people, because I've seen its good side. When I was in ninth grade, I took a music history class. When the final exam arrived, the first question was:

What is the single most influential development in the history of music?
"Oh, crap," I thought.

I had a vague recollection that Mr. Rosenberg had said something about his theory of the single most important development in the history of music, but it had been way back at the beginning of the semester, and I no longer remembered what he had said. But my exam-taking style has never been to try to remember what the teacher said, so I tried to figure it out.

Trying to figure it out is usually a pretty bad strategy for answering questions on high-school exams, because the exams are designed for regurgitation and parroting of what the teacher said, not for figuring things out. And the question looked up front like one of those magnesium questions, where the answer is totally unguessable if you don't subscribe to the insane theory, where even if you come up with a plausible answer, you lose, unless it happens to be the one answer the teacher was thinking of.

To be a fair question, it must admit only one reasonable answer. And that is true of very few questions of this type. But I think it is true of this one. It isn't an insane theory, and I did figure it out, which I think reflects a lot of credit on Mr. Rosenberg.

The single most influential development in the history of music is the invention of recording, or perhaps radio. Before these things, music was a participant sport, and afterwards, it was a product, something that could be passively consumed. When I thought of recording, I said "aha", and wrote it down in big letters, adding radio as an afterthought. I imagine that Mr. Rosenberg would have accepted either one alone.

Isn't it nice when things turn out to be better than they first appear? Thanks, Mr. Rosenberg.

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