The Weasel

We remember marvelling at the strange, alien-being students who could understand the function of a hypotenuse, then afterwards wrote them off as magicians or charlatans
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It's always delightful to hear from one's devoted readers. The fawning adulation. The stumbling yet heartfelt praise. The weeping gratitude of those for whom my recherche vocabulary, my sparkling insights, my euphuistically serpentining sentences bring a touch of paradise each week. I look at the bulging mailbag of luvviepost ("Another touch of Paradise, mein lieb Weasel - yrs, Gunter Grass"; "Fascinating news about Mrs W - yrs, Maggie Atwood") and think, it may be predictable, but by God how I love the applause of my...

But hang on a minute. What's this?

Someone I do not know has sent me a torn-out bit of a Weasel column from a few weeks back, in which a small paragraph has been circled and a word inscribed: "Nonsense". A closer look shows that I may have misunderstood some detail about light years and my explanation of them was wrong by a factor of 100,000,000. How the author could consider that this trifling bit of nit-picking was worthy of a letter is frankly beyond me. But the next letter begins, "At the risk of being labelled a propeller-head, may I remind you that pi is not 22 over 7..." and concludes crushingly, "Rough approximations may be the norm in journalism, but the designers of, say, the Boeing 747 or a haemodialysis machine did not rely on rough approximations."

Tears begin to prick the old lachrymal ducts. So this is how the Weasel gets treated by his treacherous fans. Ah well, two nasty poison-pen letters in a career of untroubled and halcyon genius is a small price to p... Wait a sec - "Dear Weasel, I was disappointed to see that you did not use your last column to correct the mathematical misconceptions revealed in your previous articles... You could start by reading GH Hardy's book, A Mathematician's Apology..."

What is this? Has everyone gone mad? Have the educated classes been taken over by trigonometric nerds in polyester suits? Can a chap not write with casual dismissiveness about maths any more, without having Pythagorean visionaries recommending books to him through Her Majesty's Mail?

It is presumably idle to point out that, to most sentient beings on the Planet Culture, science matters precisely up to the point at which it is understood and no further.

Philosophy matters to us beyond our understanding (we think the world of Wittgenstein because of what we can't understand about the Tractatus) and poetry matters likewise (we love Four Quartets precisely because it's imprecisely beyond us), but science is different. We remember marvelling at the strange, alien-being students who could understand the function of a hypotenuse, then afterwards wrote them off as magicians or charlatans. Once you'd failed to understand it, you wrote it off, knowing it would never bother you again. And now you find that all the paraphernalia of maths has been lexically adjusted in one's head: thus a tangent is a smooth- talking Latin American spy; logarithm is a cousin of algorithm, which is itself a style of computerised American dance music named after a vice- president; a cosine is a glamorous gambling den frequented by actresses with no underwear; light years refers to the apparently unending length of the Scandinavian summer, and pi is a term of abuse meaning both sanctimonious and horribly drunk. You see? Not a trace of accuracy about any of it, not a single detail, figure, equation or theorem. Nothing, in other words, remains of one's first brush with science except some meaningless words and the simple truth that I pass on to all my critics: I don't know much about science; but I know what I like.

Ever keen to explore the aesthetic avant garde, last week I visited a bomb factory in St John's Wood, north London. A number of explosive devices were being prepared; others were being installed in innocuous-looking suitcases.

The room, where the bomber also ate and slept, was littered with the tools of his trade - batteries, flash bulbs (used as detonators), timers, sections of steel piping, wires and ballistics instruction books. Nitrates were being prepared on a kitchen stove. In some unfathomable way, the manufacturing process also involved a packet of French cat litter. The only sound came from three large wind-up alarm clocks, which were ticking ominously...

As you may have guessed (the "factory" has drawn a good deal of publicity), this oppressive tableau is an installation by New York artist Gregory Green in the Saatchi Gallery. Lent an additional resonance by recent events in the capital, Green's work, entitled Work Station No 5, drew a long queue on a Saturday afternoon.

What struck me, though, were the indications of the bomber's personal life alongside the gadgets and chemicals. He eats takeaway fried chicken and Marks & Spencer reduced-fat crisps. He is also fond of olives, judging by the pile of stones on the table. But it is The Independent newspapers in one corner of the killer's den which will cause the most surprise. It's hard to believe that this cogent, informed and amusing journal would be the organ du choix of an urban terrorist.

Apparently Green slept in the installation during its construction and the remnants of his stay, including newspapers, have been incorporated into the artwork. However, bearing in mind last week's discovery of a bomb factory and arms dump in a terraced house in Lewisham, SE13, it was chilling to notice that Green had included a copy of that area's local paper, the South London Press, among the bomber's effects...

In one of his dissections of the British aristocracy, the radical historian David Cannadine remarks on the fact that while American airlines refer to their mid-price seating as Business Class, British Airways use the cosy Establishment term, Club World. Judging by their controversial new advertising campaign, it is a very peculiar club indeed, apparently owing more to Cynthia Payne's infamous establishment in Streatham than to the Carlton. Perhaps you've seen some of these deeply creepy adverts in which the heads of high-flying businessmen are transposed on to photographs of babes and sucklings. The intention is to convey the childlike sense of security and comfort with which the airline cossets its premium passengers, but the effect is queasily disconcerting.

One of the adverts features a plump-legged toddler on tiptoe reaching into a jar of biscuits on a kitchen shelf. His "head" is that of a smirking young executive about to scoff what looks suspiciously like a custard cream. The headline reads: "The new Club World larder. Corporate raiders welcome." Below, it explains how British Airways has "introduced 'Raid-the-larder', full of treats and goodies for non-stop nibbling".

The message is clear. Forget the unlimited champagne. Bin the free shaving kit and complimentary slippers. What the well-heeled traveller really lusts after are the sugary delights of the jammy dodger and the squashed fly. Since cookies and milk are a mainstay of American cuisine, you may prefer to believe that this dubious innovation is aimed primarily at US business types. Unfortunately, the fact is that the British eat more biscuits per capita than any other nation. It seems more than likely that this airborne cornucopia of confectionery was introduced at the behest of our own jetsetting exporters who feel themselves hobbled without Hobnobs, deprived without digestives. Maybe the disturbing infantilism of the BA campaign is not so inappropriate after all