There are accidents so accidental they must be the work of the gods (Michael Taussig, I Swear I Saw This).
Although academic trajectories have a tendency to appear coherent and seamless, accident often plays an important role in shaping particular directions (Angelika Bammer & Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres, The Future of Scholarly Writing).
The paradox of accidents that happen only if you work hard to make them is called ‘happenstance’. Happenstance materialises when scholars position themselves to capitalise on the unexpected, unforeseen and the unpredictable.
The intervention of happenstance is never pure. It is in the mix with research protocols, literature searches, archives, lab work and fieldwork. This said, its intervention is as inevitable as it is not entirely respectable; the echoes of chance, the strains of luck, do not sit well with the image of the knowledge expert whose years of painstaking research yield replicable results; strains of coincidence do not gel with the role of forces, determinations, historical, political and economic trajectories. It is these echoes and strains with which I am playing here. It makes no sense not to, when they feature in every other dimension of life. It only makes sense to do so within the solid scaffolding of that rigorous, slow research that exists outside of chance.
Diaries chanced upon in the rubbish, an old owl-shaped flower pot brought down from the proverbial attic, and the Boojum admitted into the physics lab all have marvellous unforeseen consequences. These impact on the outcomes of research and are part of the knowledge chain.
The diaries reveal to writer Alexander Masters the complexity of life as it is played out through the minutiae of the everyday. Masters delves deeply into the nature of our existence through the window he has been given, via happenstance, into the private thoughts of an ordinary woman whose precious ponderings ended up in a rubbish tip.
After the unexpected discovery of a piece of pottery in an antiques roadshow, Professor Kevin Hetherington guides us through the museum where Ozzy the Owl has overturned the teleology of pottery development.
With a wonderfully light touch and great sense of humour, physicist N David Mermin turns an evidence-based process into a creature — a noun. And with Lewis Carroll’s imagined world inhabited by Snarks and Boojums, an assemblage of strange companions encounter each other in the crucible of science and happenstance. These include poetry, capricious weather, encounters at conferences and the prejudices and proclivities of journal editors.
One hundred and forty-eight diaries chanced upon in a rubbish tip
One breezy afternoon, my friend Richard Grove was mooching around Cambridge with his shirt hanging out, when he came across this skip … Something inside had caught his attention. Professor Richard Grove is an energetic man, a world expert on the ecology of islands, and always eager to get himself dirty; but he’s a little plump. Defeated by the skip, he ran off. Half an hour later he reappeared with Dr Dido Davies who is thinner.
Dido fell to her hands. Dido … could see exactly what had made Richard so excited. Clustered inside a broken shower basin, wedged into the gaps around a wrenched-off door, flapping in the breeze on top of the broken bricks and slates, were armfuls of books. (Masters 2017: 4—5)
These books are one hundred and forty-eight volumes of a diary, which caught the eye of a professor on a mooch around. He was not sitting in the archives doing research. He was at his leisure, with his shirt and his boep[i] hanging out, not looking for anything. It is true that Cambridge has more than its fair share of mooching-about professors who could have stumbled across this trove, but still.
It took two more chance occurrences before the diaries passed from Professor Richard Grove to Dr Dido Davies and finally to Alexander Masters, who produced the book about them. First Richard Grove was involved in a car smash, which ended his research career. Then Dido Davies was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she passed them on to Masters, who knew that the right thing to do was to preserve the privacy of their author and
to take all three boxes back to Cambridge police station and, if they remained unclaimed, after a suitable time have them incinerated. I was a pervert to do anything else. I was not a decent human being. The world has no business to gawp at a woman at a moment like this. The writer was already describing things in a way that makes it clear she never expects or wants anyone else to hear about them, let alone put them in a biography. Thrilled, I lit a fire, backed myself onto an armchair and kept reading. I could hardly believe my luck. (2017: 35)
The skip becomes an alternative archive in a parallel universe. It enables him to think, research and write differently. His lifework is to understand and to analyse the complexities of ordinary lives. A Life Discarded puns. The life of an ordinary, unremarkable person is too often relegated to the trash heap of history.
As soon as I had the idea to write a biography of this anonymous diarist — a biography in which the biographer doesn’t know who his subject is — I was struck by an odd fact. Whenever I fantasised that she was somebody famous I felt immediately … bored. The great excitement of an anonymous diary is that it might belong to anybody. Even giving ‘I’ a name destroyed a vital thing that made the books interesting — a sense of quiet universality. (2017: 48)
Alexander Masters began his research with this unknown, nameless woman he assumes is deceased. The research drama that unfolds is that despite himself, as he digs deeper, he begins to find her. He doesn’t want to. He wants her to be an anonymous blip on the planet, which, for all our hubris, is what we all are. She first becomes not-Mary, then Laura Francis, and is finally discovered to be alive and well and someone he can visit; which eventually he does.
Laura Francis, once named, becomes individualised and is as unique as she is Everywoman. And surely this was Masters’ point about supposedly unexceptional human beings, who are also extraordinary, who are capable of creating a world record for the length of their diary — 148 volumes of it — which records only the mundane ordinary of all of our everydays.
Masters is a social historian, who embeds the ordinary into the milieu in which people live. What his meticulous research enables him to depict is ‘the muffled violence of an ordinary-extraordinary, mundanely outlandish, limp and taut life called Laura Francis’ (2017: 243). He wonders how the diaries ended up in the neighbourhood in which the tip that contained them was located:
she was not incarcerated anywhere among the streets near where Richard and Dido found the books. The Arts and Crafts houses in that neighbourhood are reserved for the captains of academic industry: heads of department, retired vice chancellors of the university, the older generation of multimillionaires who made their money in computers. Wittgenstein died in the house on the corner called, blissfully, ‘Storey’s End’. Each one of these widely separated properties has the acreage and oaken stillness of a national archive. (2017: 158)
He discovers that she had been ‘working as a housekeeper-companion for a bachelor professor … a domestic situation that belongs in the nineteenth century’ (2017: 160). A mere housekeeper for one of the Cambridge elite. A nobody, who spent her time, when not engaged in mundane shopping, cooking and cleaning, writing and writing and writing her copious diaries, which ended up in the rubbish. So poignant. So important that they were rescued, so necessary to place against, alongside, entwined with, the writing and thinking of great scholars, like Wittgenstein, who lived and died in a house on her street.
When her employer died, she was evicted from this house, of course. Masters imagines that ‘the clearance men swarmed in and pitched Laura on the street. In the confusion, she left behind 148 of her diaries; the men dumped those in the skip from which Dido rescued them later that afternoon’ (2017: 211).
When he eventually finds her, and asks about how they came to be discarded, not only does she not know how she lost them; extraordinarily, ‘she did not even realise they were missing’ (2017: 239). This beggars belief; nothing describes her better as being not part of that upper Cambridge society than that she wrote so copiously and without any ego of authorship.
The big forces of class, gender and politics, the mundane details that fill our days, the trivia that drive our desires and disappointments: all surface and mingle in this book. The happenstance of stumbling upon the heap of discarded books in the rubbish tip melds with the substance of the findings where the life of their author is also a discarded one. The form is the substance and, yes, it is academic. Masters spent five years meticulously reading, organising, contextualising the ‘five million words written across fifteen thousand pages’. He researched his diarist’s place and time, class and gender. He theorised history from below in his commitment to valuing and respecting a life in which:
she’s trying, by repeatedly beating the words against the page, to kill off her loneliness, her insomnia, her mother, Peter’s toilet habits, her mortification that she’s wasted every single one of her childhood talents, the fact that no one loves her or is willing to be loved by her, and the terrifying price of fish fillets. (2017: 196)
Metonymy is the figure of happenstance; it is a list of random items from different categories thrown together; it is where the loss of hope and of love and the price of fish are all part of each other. And with the randomness of the list, feeling unloved and the high price of fish entwine. The smelly toilet she has to clean and her regret for her unrealised talents meld with the seven reduced-price cauliflowers at the Co-op.
‘Grinding’ back and forth on her bike she visits the Co-op on Histon Road and purchases: A 50p bunch of watercress that had started to rot, A liver casserole ready meal, which she boiled up ‘to make it safe’, Seven cauliflowers, A fat-reduced garlic dip for 15p (‘if it isn’t nice, it isn’t a disaster’), The ‘remains’ of a swede … (2017: 157)
The trivia become immense as they segue into our larger hopes, fears, triumphs and disappointments. Whether we use academic terms such as metonymy or the quotidian, the point is that Alexander Masters has written an academic book against the grain, one that reveres the bigness of all our small lives: ‘If I were an extraterrestrial wanting to understand humans, I wouldn’t bother with literature or films or music, I’d go straight to Laura Francis. Life is never so distilled and simple as in a novel or a song. Laura deals with the daily murmur’ (2017: 241).
When Laura ‘is not shopping, cooking, dusting, washing up, negotiating with the milkman, bickering with the cleaner’, she watches TV, and among the programmes she favours is the BBC1 Antiques Roadshow, which by chance is the self-same programme in which an old owl-shaped flower pot was discovered to be a 350- year-old piece of Slipware pottery. Through this portal we now alight a tourist bus to The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent to gaze at the now famous Ozzy the Owl, and to contemplate the knowledge consequences of this unexpected find.
The metamorphosis of an old flower-vase into Ozzy the Famous Owl
‘Ozzy the Owl’ was brought in by a family who used him as a flower vase. He was identified by expert Henry Sandon as a rare item of Slipware pottery dating back to 1680. Ozzy was valued at more than £20,000 and now resides at a museum in his native Stoke-on-Trent.
This time the alternative archive is a popular TV show, where objects out of basements and attics emerge randomly, and occasionally change our classifications and understandings.
For the seventeen years before Ozzy entered the scene, the pinnacle of the museum’s collection of wares from Staffordshire, from the early modern period to the present, was the Wedgwood collection. The genius of Josiah Wedgwood created the fulcrum around which the organisation of the display revolved (Hetherington 1997: 200).
We move back and forth with Hetherington as our museum guide as he leaves the Wedgwoods and returns to the beginning of the main collection, and to our Ozzy, who now sits in a case on its own, and bamboozles our classifications and certainties. And he did so by chance. He broke the code that ‘allows us to read what the museum understands its exhibition to mean’ (Hetherington 1997: 202). It is not that Ozzy obliterated coding and classifying, which are necessary to our communication of meaning. What he did was to bring into being a new set of criteria as to the value of a museum display object.
The TV-viewing public loved the idea of the family with the vase shoved inside a plastic bag striking it rich. The possibility of the shine of finding treasure turned the rough slipware owl into an inspiration, which re-positioned the museum’s sense of aesthetic and material value. Tourists flocked. The museum de-throned Josiah, and Ozzy the Usurper was set in his place in the glass cabinet. Ozzy now foregrounds the rest of the collection; ‘He is also immediately visible from the entrance to the main gallery and is, therefore, very hard to miss. The perfect spot, at the start’ (Hetherington 1997: 206).
The plot thickens. Ozzy has also expropriated Dr Plot from his display case. Dr Plot; the very name enhances the fairytale. Dr Plot’s 1686 The Natural History of Stafford-shire, ‘contains within it the earliest published account of pot manufacture in this world centre of pot manufacture, notably of “butter pots”, two of which can be seen in a nearby display case’ (1997: 207). When Ozzy arrived, Plot was shunted off into storage so that the owl jug could take his place and, in the process, deprived the two butter pots, which remain suspended in their nearby display case, of their meaning and context, which Plot’s book had clarified: ‘Nobody knew in 1979 that they would have to find room for an important slipware owl jug, for he was not part of the network. He became part of it in 1990’ (Hetherington 1997: 207).
Linear progression is cracked open and the accepted evolutionary path of progress is re-calculated, based on the people’s vote as they flock in busloads to visit Ozzy and enable the Museum to thrive financially. And in taking up his place on a new pedestal, Ozzy acquires an ‘aura’:
Ozzy has the aura associated with first being put on display on television. He was lost and unknown and was then found in front of a viewing nation. That is his history; the rest of the owl jug’s history is missing; he flies to us more or less straight from the 17th century, via a peak-time television programme. (208—09)
Ozzy’s ‘aura’ radiates notwithstanding that his crafting is rough and crude — perhaps it is because of these imperfections, which have endeared him to the public. Or are they even imperfections? Or only if compared with a Wedgwood, which no longer creates the lens of viewing? Ozzy has created a new appreciation of slipware pottery, which has superseded the much more complex and developed practice of Wedgwood, which came later. He has bamboozled our sense of time, by occupying this centre stage, a spotlight previously reserved for a later style. This is a politics of teleological disobedience (with a nod to Walter Mignolo’s 2011 manifesto):
His aesthetic is a popular aesthetic. He is not improved … He is not an object to be appreciated with the discriminating eye of a disinterested taste but with an eye on the television screen. He is of the people, a prodigal son who has returned home from the wilderness after 300 years … [and so] he has the power to rupture the representation of the linearity of history. (Hetherington 1997: 213)
And this powerful disruption of natural evolution, of our sense of aesthetic development, within an inevitable modernity is predicated on the fact that ‘the perspective is altered in ways that were not planned or are not able to be fully controlled’ (Hetherington 1997: 216). Happenstance is wily, unpredictable by definition and messy in the wake of its intellectual interference. The chance factor, the luck potential for the everyman and woman, is grassroots and fundamental to Ozzy’s allure, meaning and value.
Before Ozzy, rough pieces of slipware, like crude butter dishes, were displayed in the museum, with Dr Plot’s book to explain them, to enable the viewer to ascend to the great pinnacle of aesthetic achievement represented by the polished, ornamental pieces of Josiah Wedgewood, later in the eighteenth century (Hetherington 1997: 209). All has been overturned. Plot’s book has been banished to the storeroom and the slipware preface has become the centrepiece, the tourist attraction, the item with the aura.
Calling a vase of slipware pottery Ozzy — an endearing diminutive for Oswald? — turns him into a living creature. Ozzy becomes a pet owl, a sweetie, a piece of love for everyone, unlike Josiah, who is definitely not Joe or Joshie. The name increases the aura and strengthens the owl’s intervention into the trajectory of the development of the form of pottery.
This brings to mind another creature, the Boojum, which gatecrashed into the world of science and turned an evidence-based laboratory process into a noun, a creature of poetry; and forced us to consider the science within a new mind-set. This is why David Mermin struggled so hard to make the word ‘Boojum’ an accepted scientific term, a struggle charted in his paper ‘E Pluribus Boojum: The physicist as neologist’ (1981).
Hunting the Boojum
This serious, hilarious paper about the naming of a way of looking at the behaviour of superfluid helium-3 under certain laboratory conditions is pulsed with the quirks, errors and coincidences of happenstance. This resonates, in Mermin’s view, with the unpredictable outcome when Lewis Carroll’s butcher, baker, bellman and beaver go hunting a Snark. They risk the chance of sighting a bad Snark, a Boojum, in which case the hunter gets sucked into a black hole.
Mermin desires to coin the term ‘Boojum’ for the vanishing away of the pattern of lines that normally weave through superfluid helium-3. This pattern is tenacious, resists destruction even if the liquid is stirred, twisted, bent and splayed. However, being an anisotropic liquid, capable of changing its properties depending on how you look at it, a spherical drop of the liquid results in the disappearance of that symmetric, supposedly indestructible pattern. Mermin finds himself describing this disappearance as having ‘softly and suddenly vanished away’ — a direct quote from Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Once this strange connection between Mermin’s sensibility and Carroll’s popped into the physicist’s head, there was no turning back. He knows the Establishment that he is up against; ‘I was not unaware of how editors of scientific journals might view the attempt of Boojums to enter their pages; I was not unmindful of the probable reactions of international commissions on nomenclature’ (1981: 46).
Nevertheless, he ‘resolved then and there to get the word into the literature’ (1981: 46). The alter-archive that Mermin evokes is the Wonderland down the rabbit hole and into the wise nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s alternative universe. He takes his physics into the realm of mood, of climate and volatile weathers, of strange creatures, hopes, fears and ambitions. He begins by describing ‘the exact moment’ when he hit upon the necessity for the word ‘Boojum’, which is at a conference in Sussex in the UK:
The Sussex Symposium took place during the drought of 1976. The Sussex downs looked like brown Southern California hills … For five of the hottest days England has endured, physicists from all over the world met in Sussex to talk about what happens at the very lowest temperatures ever attained. (1981: 46)
Coining this word becomes entangled with the symposium, the drought, the landscape and the heat. The physics is embroiled in, and mediated by, the poetry. But is it academic? The paper is published in Physics Today. Is Physics Today academic or is it the site where scientists play while publishing the serious stuff elsewhere? If so, why is Mermin so fixated on getting the name ‘Boojum’ through the gatekeepers and into the pukka journals of science? It is because he understands that symposia, the weather and the institutional culture of science and scientists, mediate replicable effects on the pattern of a certain liquid when viewed as a spherical drop.
The philosophical treasures of Lewis Carroll’s poetic imagination illuminate Mermin’s insistence upon the humanness of the scientists, their egos, their jetlag, their response to place and climate, where they debate their findings. Mermin suggests that these are components of how scientists make discoveries within the academic milieu in which they work. This blossoming of a network of pure science, fallible actors, and accidents brings Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory to mind.
Actor Network Theory recognises the existence of multiple agents and forces that give rise to new knowledge. There is no single, white-coated scientist inventor, but instead human and non-human agents enter the network and create its meaning (Latour 1996: 369). The network begins with apparently diverse and ‘incommensurable, unconnected’ entities, which ‘sometimes enter into provisionally commensurable connections’ (1996: 370).
Read through the lens of Actor Network Theory, Mermin’s assemblages, apparently random descriptions of exotic foreign places, conferences and climate, all become players in the network, which contributes to the knowledge about superfluids. In ‘Erice, a mountain-top Sicilian town three thousand feet straight above the sea, whose streets and alleys are paved in geometrical patterns of massive stones, polished smooth by feet and wheels’ (Mermin 1981: 48), the geometry, the stones worn down by people and their carts, cars and their history, become part of that network which includes the landscape and the weather.
In Erice ‘the views are spectacular and the weather was neither too hot nor too cold’. And the climax of this moment in Erice, where ‘occasionally a cloud would settle over the mountain top for a day or two sending cool mists swirling through the steep alleyways’, is that it is ‘the perfect place to meet a Boojum’ (Mermin 1981: 48).
Through the mists of a mountain-top world, Mermin finds an alternative research site for naming a scientific phenomenon. Within this supposed chaos, there is “some margin of manoeuvres” between dimensions leading us ‘away from mathematical properties into a world which has not yet been so neatly charted’ (Latour 1996: 372). It took a mathematician like Charles Dodgson, whose students found his lectures deathly dull, to shape-shift into Lewis Carroll, whose fantasies and desires gave us access to other worlds of knowledge companions.
Enter into this mélange, or assemblage, one of the gatekeepers determined to exclude the Boojum from the lexicon of science, one George Trigg, editor-in-chief of the crucial journal to which Mermin had submitted his paper in which he included the term ‘Boojum’. However, by chance, Mermin included a footnote to this paper defending his spelling of Boojum against the Webster’s Third Edition use of the spelling ‘boogum’. This footnote, Mermin was sure, was going to be edited out. As it turned out, it triggered Professor Trigg’s decision to enable the Boojum’s entry as the name for a concept in the world of physics. How could this be?
Almost a year later I was at a conference on low temperature physics in Grenoble (where I gave a talk, the subsequent publication of which led to the first ‘Boojum’ in Journal de Physique; the weather was unpleasantly but not remarkably hot and humid). At an outdoor barbecue I happened to meet Gene Wells. After several glasses of wine he confided to me that my lexicographic footnote had won the day for the Boojum. It seems that the weight of opinion among the editors was against the term. However the editor-in-chief, George Trigg, had loathed the third edition of Webster’s for many years. The unprecedented opportunity I had handed him to print a brisk attack on it in his own journal was more than he could resist; he forsook one set of linguistic principles for a higher one, and let the Boojum in. Having launched the Boojum in the grandest style I could manage, I felt my job was done. (Mermin 1981: 51)
Who on earth loathes a particular edition of a dictionary? Luckily for Mermin, Professor Trigg does, it seems. This odd, chance factor changed everything. Everything? What’s in a name? Mermin’s eccentric choice of Boojum for his physics phenomenon, it is that a name contributes to the knowledge thrown up by happenstance. Calling the behaviour of a drop of helium-3 a Boojum does not change its patterns and properties. Or does it? Even as it pinpoints a moment in the drop of life of a superfluid, the name ‘Boojum’ evokes the underbelly of our certainties and the unpredictability of our undertakings. By bringing Lewis Carroll’s wonderland into the language of science, Mermin casts doubt over the assumption of the seamlessness of progress and the laws of nature in physics.
Pure Chance and a Warning
Happenstance, remember, as it occurs in academic research, is not pure chance. It is the intervention of chance into the laboratory, into the mathematics, the replicable research template. But then there is also pure chance, which also plays with our serious, replicable archival research. There is Sam Trickey whose fortuitous tricky name played his role in the Mermin Boojum drama. Mermin had:
an interesting correspondence with Sam Trickey. Trickey edited the proceedings of the Sanibel Symposium. Readers of the article in Physical Review Letters were referred to my paper in Quantum Fluids and Solids, ed. S.B. Trickey et al., for mathematical details about Boojums. I discovered after the article appeared that at least one colleague concluded from the juxtaposition of Trickey and the Boojum that the entire thing was a colossal hoax on my part. I convinced him that I was serious, but he was unappeased. He had worked in the office of the Scientific Adviser to the President. ‘Wait till Proxmire sees this!’ he warned. (1981: 51)
And so Prof Trickey enters the Snarkey Wonderland with his ‘godfatherly interest in the success of the Boojum, having allowed me to print “Boojum” and “booja” many times in his book. He also entered the word in the index’ (1981: 51).
Then there is the research error, which Masters is only able to correct by the chance factor that Laura is still alive and able to answer his questions:
The photograph on page 170, of E on a bicycle, aged seventy-two. It is not a picture of E. Laura has never seen this woman before. It seems that there were two unknown bodies in the skip that day in 2001 when Richard and Dido pushed through a hedge to trespass about a building site. (2017: 254)
Who is the other woman? How did the image of this elderly woman on a bike end up abandoned in a skip? What of the happenstance of this metonymic relationship between her and Laura as they encounter each other in among the rubbish? Masters’ careful research had offered up the most plausible explanation for the person in the photograph. What are the chances of a random photograph floating in amongst the discarded diaries, which this one did?
In the yard of Laura’s semi-detached bungalow there is ‘cat food scattered outside as well as a saucepan, a pink fake-crystal vase, and a paperweight in the shape of an owl’ (2017: 222; emphasis added).
I will end this rant with the original illustration by Henry Holiday in the first edition of The Hunting of the Snark (1876). It is of the Baker, being warned by his elderly uncle of the danger of hunting Snarks, given the chance of being sucked into the black hole of a Boojum.
This catastrophic possibility is happenstance par excellence. Only intrepid seekers, scientists and researchers embark on perilous journeys, which can, and often do, end badly. And it is with this image that I will issue my own warning against assuming we are all-knowing, all-seeing researchers, freed from life’s tricksters and surprises. In fact, jokers and poets enhance our research with nuance. The Wonderland, in which happenstance reigns, is the grey area, the unanswered and the unknown, in which pulse all our certainties.
Thanks to The Potteries for providing a ten-year licence to reproduce the image of Ozzy the Owl. Please note that no other use is granted, without the consent of the copyright holders.
[i] ‘boep’ is a colloquial South African word for protruding belly
Bammer, A and Boetcher Joeres, R-E (eds) 2015 The Future of Scholarly Writing, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan
Carroll, L 1876 The Hunting of the Snark, London: Macmillan
Hetherington, K 1997 ‘Museum topology and the will to connect’, Journal of Material Culture 2: 199—218. DOI: 10.1177/135918359700200203
Latour, B 1996 ‘On actor-network theory: A few clarifications’, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbHStable 47: 369—81
Masters, A 2017 A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip, London: 4th Estate
Mermin, ND 1981 ‘E Pluribus Boojum: The physicist as neologist’, Physics Today 34.4: 46—53
Mignolo, W 2011 ‘Epistemic disobedience and the decolonial option: A manifesto’, Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1.2 (Fall): 44—66
Plot, R 1686 The Natural History of Stafford-shire, Oxford: The Theatre
Taussig, M 2011 I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press