Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, a firm grasp of the laws of physics

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The Independent Online

Babies in the wombs of mothers attending the annual British Association meeting at Imperial College, London, last week would have been intrigued and not a little amused to find themselves the object of discussion among child psychologists from the Oxford Babylab. It's a moot point whether or not they understood all the science (though see below for evidence that they might have), but those in the last five months of gestation would at least, according to the Babylab's own findings, have recognised the speech rhythms of their mothers' mother tongues and therefore, we must assume, have been well placed to distinguish jargon from plain English and sophistry from good reasoning. Which is more than the rest of us can do.

Babies in the wombs of mothers attending the annual British Association meeting at Imperial College, London, last week would have been intrigued and not a little amused to find themselves the object of discussion among child psychologists from the Oxford Babylab. It's a moot point whether or not they understood all the science (though see below for evidence that they might have), but those in the last five months of gestation would at least, according to the Babylab's own findings, have recognised the speech rhythms of their mothers' mother tongues and therefore, we must assume, have been well placed to distinguish jargon from plain English and sophistry from good reasoning. Which is more than the rest of us can do.

We deteriorate from birth - that's what it comes down to. We fail to fulfil our embryonic potential. But I knew that, from personal experience, already.

I was a swimmer in the womb; today I am terrified of water. In the womb, I floated upside down without a qualm, making my entrance into the dangerous world like a punk rocker, head first; since then I have moved heaven and earth to keep myself out of situations that could end in my suffering an inversion - no funfairs, no wall-bars, no stunt aeroplanes, no handstands, not even a somersault.

What is more, my mother tells me that I was perfectly comfortable and uncomplaining in the womb and never once kicked or otherwise expressed dissatisfaction with my position; today, after a lifetime of querulousness and unease, I am still unable to find a bed or a chair in which I can admit to feeling happy or relaxed. Either I used up all my reserves of good nature and bravery before I was born, or I turned into a coward on contact with humanity. However you explain it, physically speaking, it's been downhill all the way.

Was I sounder in mind when I was wombing it, as well? And if I was, when did the mental and sexual sickness start? One of the ways the Oxford Babylab measures the language-related attention-span of the newborn baby is to put sensors on the mother's nipples. I'm not entirely certain how this works. Does the baby suck more when it hears words it recognises - "Rock-a-bye-baby," for example - and less when the mother tells it, "In this way, paradoxically, you could argue that Wittgenstein reflected the zeitgeist"?

Or is it the other way around? Do you guzzle not to express devotion to your mother but to take your mind off her being a pedant? More to the point - though this is almost certainly beyond the scope of the Oxford Babylab - what does it say about a grown man that he becomes aroused when he hears the phrase "sensors on the nipples"? Leave out sensors. Just nipples.

Bring the sensors back momentarily, and we may get some clue to a disturbance I would like to think is more than private. Isn't that precisely what a baby is - a sensor fixed to its mother's nipples? And once you've been one of those, is it reasonable to suppose you can ever usefully be anything else again? In other words, can we now agree that it is around the nipple that everything starts to go haywire?

Take, for example, the Oxford Babylab's finding that the infant leaps from the womb a natural born physicist. Now I wouldn't know a law of physics from a loaf of bread, but apparently physics says that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Don't ask me why; it's just the law. And who, apart from Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, knows this? You guessed - the newborn baby.

Can you believe that? Wah, wah, covered in blood, and the world in black and white and upside down, but still he grasps that two objects cannot simultaneously take up the same position in space. Yet within hours he has forgotten what he knows, in his eagerness to put the object called his mother's nipple where the object called his tongue is. Show him a breast, and all the laws of physics go out of the window.

Thereby proving that there isn't a law known to science that isn't contradicted by the laws of appetite and desire. Witness, for example, marriage, which persists, against all evidence to the contrary, with the fantasy that you can make two objects occupy the same space.

I find consolation in this. As a physicist, the newborn baby is an aficionado of magic. Because he understands the physical rights of an object to hold its own discrete position in the universe, he is impressed when a magician produces a dove of peace from a receptacle supposedly containing a bunch of freshly cut daffodils. Let him grow a little older, however, let the nipple have interfered with his powers of reasoning, and he can no longer see anything mysterious in the dove's changing places with the daffodils.

"So, what are you showing me here? One's a flower, one's not. What's the big deal?" In order for him to understand the magic of magic, the small child has to relearn the basic laws of physics.

And the reason I find this consoling? My father was a children's magician who always went down exceptionally badly with children. Now I know why. They didn't realise he was bending nature's laws. He would have fared better entertaining embyros. A pity I wasn't able to tell him that before he died. But he mightn't have thanked me for it.

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