Nasty Piece of Work

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A fact may be defined as a thing that is known to be true. The existence of fact as a philosophical entity may be taken to be axiomatic, since facts are essentially data of experience, and the assertion that experience itself is illusory will ipso facto dispense with the facts as part of the proposition.

In spite of this, most people maintain a firm grip on the general concept of fact, and find this to be a more-than-useful adjunct to the condition of sanity, which is widely considered to be a desirable norm of civilised living.

Within the world that it is h2g2, it is a fact that all Edited Guide Entries must in fact be founded in fact.

In the above sentence, the first use of the word 'fact' may be taken to mean 'accepted principle'. In the strictest sense, this is an incorrect use of the term, since its veracity in this context is contestable and therefore not absolute. The second use is pure padding, a frivolous insertion which is in this case presumably intended to be humorous, but which also typifies a common usage which aims to cement a declaration, and thereby to imply that a thing that is claimed is fundamentally inarguable.

The third use is the correct one, in fact.

Oh, bother.

Anyway, the author's thesis in this article is that facts, while always intrinsically precise, may nonetheless exhibit a considerable range of significance and type. Some examples may be found instructive in this regard.

Most facts are benign. This means that, though true, they have little consequence and do no harm. Within this general classification, several further kinds may be discerned.

The following facts may be considered to be both benign and banal. My left foot is on the floor. The television is on. The snow has melted on the lawn.

By slight extension, however, an element of philosophical intrigue may be introduced. It feels as if what I assume to be my left foot is on the so-called floor. The television is in an active state suggestive of a vestigial attempt at communication. The snow has disappeared as a result of bombardment by electromagnetic radiation, possibly assisted by some kind of energy flux emanating from grass.

It might even be suggested, heaven forfend, that no fact is interesting until it is undermined.

Some facts are really quite strange. The glue on Israeli postage stamps is certified kosher. Emus cannot walk backwards. The wingspan of a Boeing 747 is longer than the Wright brothers' first flight.

Others are deeply questionable. Penguins can jump as high as six feet in the air. Of the thousand-plus organic chemicals that have been identified in coffee, only twenty-six have been medically tested and half of those cause cancer in rats. About a third of all Americans flush the toilet while they're still sitting on it.

Some facts seem to combine every attribute imaginable, except perhaps utility. The 1609 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets known as the Quarto contains one-hundred and fifty-four examples of the said verse-form as well as another poem entitled A Lover's Complaint, and a letter-count of the entire script reveals that there are more than twelve thousand e's in it, but no j's whatsoever.

It is now necessary to consider facts other than benign ones. In general, facts may be arranged in a manner which supports, or appears to give weight to, a particular view of reality. This is known as the principle of advocacy, and is a pillar of civilisation, as well as being the greatest evil ever perpetrated by mankind. (This last point is not a fact, merely an opinion).

The most sensitive thermometric device is the quartz resonator, with a typical resolution at the microkelvin level. Human skin can only detect a difference in temperature around half a million times greater than this.

The most acute sense of smell possessed by any animal belongs to the male emperor moth (Eudia pavonia). Experiments first conducted by Germans in 1961 have proved that this creature can detect certain pheromones exuded by the virgin female at a range of 6.8 miles upwind. The scent in question has further been identified as one of the higher alcohols, of which the female carries less than 0.0000015 grains.

These are quantified examples of fact. It is not possible to apply the same exactitude to the propensity of humans to detect a whiff of putrefaction, or the sudden chilling of a room. Some people can undoubtedly do so, however, for example while reading a piece of writing.

Ninety percent of a human body is water, as we are reminded by the estimable U44891 in his incisive Entry A92512, which is gratefully acknowledged as the inspiration for the current mischief. Reducing a human body to its component chemicals, however, is in most contexts a proscribed activity inviting criminal prosecution.

The dissociation of the corporeal substance of a human is more usually macroscopic. Disarticulation under violent impact, at elbows and wrists or knees and ankles is commonplace. In the arbitrary example of an intact body striking the ground after falling eighty floors from a doomed skyscraper, these pentadactyl extremities will tend to fly off while the trunk and head, with their greater inertia, will disintegrate almost entirely. A similar tendency will be exhibited, for example, in an explosion on a crowded commuter train. Victims of such incidents are therefore most frequently identified by personal jewellery worn on the wrists or fingers, sometimes by fingerprints, and sometimes using blood or tissue samples taken from these peripheral fragments of their original being.

The fact of death itself has shades. Clinical death is merely the opinion of a particular trained and licensed observer. So-called brain death is more definite, being the cessation of electroneurological activity for a particular span of time. The idea of a moment of death is of course fanciful, because death is a process of progressive system failure which may extend over a protracted period. This failure of the human system is consciously assimilated by very many of those who experience it. Severely injured people may be acutely aware of their terminal condition. An extreme example of this has been known to occur in burns cases, where the outer skin of a fully-conscious victim may continue to undergo combustion even as they receive what is invariably palliative treatment.

In a reasonable estimate based on sociological statistics, you are most likely to experience your own death at some time in the next 109 seconds. Within the next 3 x 109 seconds, the probability of your death may be taken as an effective certainty. As has already been pointed out, the termination of your different bodily processes will take place over a period of time. However, as a general guideline for expiry in a temperate climate, you may assume that within 106 seconds of the interruption of life-signs your remains will become toxic and disposal will become a necessity.


That's where fact gets you.

Better stick to dreaming...

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