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Science FACT: New Light on the Roots of Laughter

by John Grant

As a writer of humorous books — some of them intentionally so — I frequently receive letters from readers commenting on or amplifying on some of the material about which I have written.

Most such letters are incredibly tedious — "Guess what joke, giggle giggle, I heard in the pub the other night" — but I do my best, if I can find the time, to reply to all of them . . . in such a way that the correspondence doesn't become an extended one.

Every now and then a much more interesting debate starts between myself and a reader; and on the odd occasion this has developed into a full-scale book in its own right: I'm thinking particularly of the correspondence I started some years ago with Professor Mimi Culotte, of the Ancient Mediterranean Research Institution, Powderham University, California, which in due course formed the basis of my scholarly work Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis (written under the pseudonym John Grant; copies available from LeonieStrider@aol.com). Such "windfalls", however, occur only very rarely — at least to me.

Only a couple of weeks ago, though, there came in through my letterbox a communication which very definitely falls into the "Mimi Culotte" category. In fact, I'm still at the stage of deciding whether or not there might be a book in it — at least, I know that there's very definitely a book in it; what I don't know is whether I could make stacks of money out that book (we scholars always consider such matters as part of our responsibilities to Dubya academia at large).

Certainly, however, the contents of that letter need to be made known to a wider public, because they are of riveting importance to the way in which we regard one of the fundamental underpinnings of Western society — all human society, in fact.

The letter was from my good friend Dave Knuckle, just returned from his Folsom vacation and now employed as Science Correspondent of that eminent journal Shocking Science Wonder Stories. What is not generally realized is that, in addition to his outstanding work as a scientific popularizer (it's said that he can explain anything to the layman, with the possible exception of the benefits of drilling in an Alaskan Wildlife Reserve), he is also a practising neurophysicist; that is, he is concerned with basic researches in the "grey area" between brain and the Universe.

This actually gives him a pretty large scope in which to operate.

Dave (he allows me to call him that) was writing to tell me about some literally mind-rotting new discoveries of his:

Alan [he wrote], aside from the fact that I'd appreciate your bringing that keen incisive mind of yours to bear on the scientific problem, there's also the difficulty of publication. I'd like to ask your advice on this. You see, my deductions kind of fall between two stools, as it were: they're too startling for the died-in- the-wool academic journals but too good for Shocking, if you get my drift. What do you suggest I do about this?

My own feeling was that the best solution to his dilemma was that I should plagiarize him wholesale — which is why I am writing about it, and you are reading about it, now. Perhaps he will read about it himself one day.

Dave's accompanying package of information, experimental notes and the like was a big, bulky thing, and it would be tedious for you if I were to discuss it in detail here. As a matter of fact, there are parts of it that even I don't wholly grasp. However, here are the bare bones of the matter.

Every schoolchild knows that in 1895 the German physicist Wilhelm Konrad von Roentgen discovered a new, hitherto- unsuspected form of radiation which would pass through many, but not all, physical objects: he dubbed these mysterious rays "X- rays", and of course we're all familiar with being blasted by the things at the doctor's or the dentist's. (As an aside, haven't you ever thought it curious that, while a doctors are taking an X-ray of some innocent, unsuspecting organ of your body, they retire to lurk behind a two-foot shield of solid lead while you are placed undefended at the exact focus of the rays?)

After Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, other, similar discoveries of radiation from the more arcane reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum followed thick and fast: alpha-rays, gamma-rays and various other discoveries by Greek physicists, as well as some less-recognized but nevertheless vital forms of radiation such as N-rays (discovered by Prosper Blondlot in 1903) and Shearer rays (discovered by Shearer during World War I: these latter could even be used to make "photographs" of objects many hundreds of miles away, over the horizon).

It is hardly surprising, then, that a scientist as conscious of his own public image as Dave Knuckle should follow the pack and discover his "own" form of radiation. These rays he tentatively dubs "Knuckle-rays", but in deference to his modesty I shall call them "S-rays".

Well, what do S-rays do that all the other types of rays can't?

The answer is: quite a lot.

In fact, they're a totally new variety of radiation, completely unlike anything we've known about before — and the ramifications of their discovery are bound to have overwhelming effects upon many of our sciences and much of our culture.

S-rays, you see, are the medium whereby humour is transmitted.

Now, I have to confess that, before I got Dave's letter, I'd always assumed that the transmission of humour was a fairly simple affair. You saw something funny or you heard a joke, and you laughed at it.

I should have known better: in fact, with hindsight, I'm now astounded by my own naivety. If there is a single lesson which I have learnt in my own humble study of the sciences it is that nothing is ever simple once the scientists have got their hands on it.

Over and over again, during this century, we've discovered that even the most apparently uncomplicated of things are to be explained only in terms of the behaviour of particles, through which explanation they become steadily more incomprehensible.

Take gravity, for example. In Newton's time it was just a question of objects attracting each other. In Einstein's day gravity became a rather less easily visualizable matter — great big rubber sheets along which rolled ball-bearings — but it was still reasonably comprehensible to the average hyperintelligent person such as myself. Nowadays, though, we're expected to think of the action of gravity in terms of little particles called "gravitons", and the whole picture has become like something produced by Willem de Kooning after a six- pack.

S-rays (or "laughterons", if one wants to consider them as particles — which, of course, they are . . . but only sometimes) are, then, in a way which even Dave himself does not fully understand, generated by what we laymen call "funny incidents" but which he has, for clarity, renamed "hyper- laughteron-generating piezzo-circumstances".

In free space, S-rays follow straight-line paths, rather like light; that is to say, they cannot travel round corners. Which is what you might expect: the real reason you do not laugh at a funny incident which takes place out of sight or earshot is not simply because you cannot see or hear it but because the S-rays, like light-rays, cannot travel around the intervening obstacles to impinge upon your brain.

Moreover, S-rays, like light-rays, cannot travel through solid objects. However, they do display a marked affinity for radiation in the radio frequencies, with which they are often to be found in association. Over the years, our commercial radio and television producers have unwittingly made use of this property of S-rays, but it's been a rather willy-nilly affair.

In fact, here we have one example of the triumph of the new scientific theory of humour over the old. I have often wondered — and I'm sure you must have too — why so many of the television programmes billed as comedies are in fact not remotely funny. Even with the addition of canned laughter to their soundtracks, they are still incapable of drawing a smile to the lips of anyone except perhaps a latter-day Leopold von Sacher- Masoch.

This enigma has now surrendered its secrets to Dave's pioneering researches in S-rays. Clearly what has happened is that the people transmitting such stuff have, through ignorance, omitted to include with the general package of assorted radiation beamed into everyone's television sets the most important element of all: a bundle of S-rays. Those broadcasters are not to be blamed: it is only by chance that their rivals, equally ignorant of the existence of S-rays, have succeeded in effecting a "complete" transmission of their comedy shows.

Knowledge of the existence of S-rays and how to manipulate them can be expected, therefore, to completely transform the media over the next few years. And it won't be just comedy shows that are affected. Just think for a moment how much more you would enjoy your serious viewing, such as CNN or Hollywood Squares, if there were to be supplied, along with sound and vision, an unerring beam of S-rays focused directly on your cerebellum.

In fact, this already occasionally happens by accident: I well remember watching many a State of the Union Address and being filled with an irresistible urge to giggle.

The opportunities for exploitation of this sort of thing are immense. It can be only a matter of time before the cable companies cotton on to the fact that there will be a big demand for a separate supply of S-rays which viewers can tune in to in preparation for — or preferably instead of — some of their otherwise more distressing comedy programmes.

"This is all very well," I can hear you think (due to T-rays, or "thoughterons", a separate scientific marvel), "but, if S-rays have only very recently been discovered, how come Smithee is so confidently predicting a glorious technological future based on their exploitation? So far, as he has admitted, the scientists are uncertain as to what S-rays actually are, which means that they're a long way short of knowing how to put them to use."

That's what we scientists call a pretty dumb question (or PDQ). If you think about it, scientists have as yet not the faintest idea of what, say, Kraft Cheese Slices actually are, and yet a child of three knows how to use them.

It's the same with S-rays. Blondlot's N-rays — mentioned a few paragraphs above — can be manipulated by refracting them through prisms made of aluminium, in exactly the same way that you can refract light-rays through lenses made of glass. In both cases the prism (and hence, by extension, the lens — lenses are, after all, really just specialized prisms) is an extremely powerful manipulative tool: master the prism and you've mastered the rays.

Every form of radiation (or particle flux, which means exactly the same thing, only different) has its own "prism" by use of which you can control the radiation and put it to positive use. Even gravitons can be controlled in this way; all you have to do is grab the nearest black hole and whip up a prism from it.

S-rays are no different. In their case the prism must be made — for theoretical reasons which Dave explains but which are a teensy little bit too obscure for me to summarize here (although I assure you I really do understand them myself) — out of the well known material lithium-5 (Li-5, as we science buffs call it). This can cause a few problems, since Li-5 is a trifle radioactive. However, its halflife is a generous 4.4 x 10<-22> seconds, so no doubt within the next few years we'll have developed the necessary technology with which to build whole complexes of Li-5 prisms, lenses and other "optical" equipment with which to control and direct carefully modulated beams of S- rays.

In fact, in no time at all we can expect to see the emergence of the early prototypes of the S-ray maser (i.e., the S-ray equivalent of the laser). This will be an astonishingly useful gadget, for reasons which spring readily to mind.

For example, soon we can expect to find surgeons employing S- ray masers to stimulate precisely the organ of the patient's body which they have selected, while leaving the rest of the person completely serious! Dave himself puts this across with a certain flair:

In past generations people have only been able to talk figuratively about tickling one's fancy. The physicians of the future will be able literally to do it.

The possibilities of this sort of work are of course endless.

On the other side of the coin there is, alas, the likelihood of the military application of the S-ray laser as a device for slaughtering, rather than curing, one's fellow humanity. Dave doesn't go into this too particularly, and I've no desire to do so either, in case some bloodlusting general should read these pages and have an idea. Therefore, despite the tantalizing image of people e-mailing me at LeonieStrider@aol.com and offering me vast sums of government money, I shall say nothing of my detailed but carefully hidden plans for S-ray grenades which can be smuggled into enemy missile silos and detonated from a distance, with the inevitable result that the enemy, laughing himself into imbecility, will press the Button without realizing that he is doing so, and thereby accidentally start a nuclear conflict which will come as a total surprise to himself. The advantages to our side (once my bank manager has determined precisely which side "our side" is) of this shock attack will be incalculable.

But let's turn away from such dismal prospects to think instead of some shorter-term realizable technology: the creation of S-ray solutions, analogous to the gamma-ray solutions you take in the form of barium meals. Once again, there will be medical uses for these, but my own inclination, for the moment, is to concentrate instead on the commercial prospects.

Just think how entertaining a copy of Mad Magazine might be had its pages been dipped before sale into a proprietary solution of S-rays. With a little similar treatment, the day might come when you can see people positively almost smiling at an impregnated copy of National Lampoon.

As with television productions, of course, this sort of thing already happens accidentally to printed material from time to time, which is why some of us rock with mirth whenever we so much as try to open a copy of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

This brings me to a final burning question, which must be echoing through the empty caverns of your own mind as well:

Why is Entertainment Geekly too cheapskate to impregnate the Alan Smithee Diaries with S-rays?

I think we should be told.

The End