Friendship, black holes and quantum physics

Atomic Big Bang Explosion Armageddon Pop

As children, we make friends easily. It can take little more than striking up a conversation with the new kid in class, a common dislike of the class bully, or a shared joke at the expense of a teacher or another pupil, for a friendship to form. The fact that the friendship may not last, is of no consequence – children rarely think ahead to the next day, let alone the next week, month or year. Friendship is offered and accepted in a moment, and it is left to time to determine whether or not it lasts.

As we grow older, however, we become more cautious about making friends. Years’ worth of experience of friendships made and lost, combined with growing responsibilities and demands on our time from jobs, family and existing friends, make us more wary about striking up new friendships. What is the point, we ask ourselves, of investing time and effort in a new friendship, when we barely have time for our existing friends?

It was this sort of doubt that made me hesitate before suggesting to F*, whom I met on my recent cycling holiday in South Africa, that it may be fun to meet up. After all, we had established in South Africa that she lives near to where I do currently – but I am about to move to the Lake District, so what is the point of making new friends in an area I am about to leave?

On the other hand, I had the firm memory of the afternoon in Cape Agulhas where we had first truly bonded over numerous glasses of wine, my confession that I had voted for Brexit and her delighted response, “Me too!”  The friendship, I believe, was formed in that instant – the sheer relief at being able to discuss the biggest political event in the UK’s recent history, and the reasons we both had voted to leave the EU, in the comfortable knowledge that we were not going to fall out over it, was immense. The fact that both of us, at the time of the referendum, were working in financial services, one of the most pro-Remain industries in existence, only added to our shared delight at finding a fellow renegade. The conversation flowed from that point, as we discovered we had far more in common than an enjoyment of cycling holidays and a desire to leave the European Union.

Still, friendships formed on holiday often don’t last once one returns to the routine of home and work. So I was still a little bit nervous as to whether or not we would find much to talk about at lunch today. Would we spend the entire lunch simply reminiscing about the holiday and not finding any other topics of conversation?

Well, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. From my plans to move to the Lakes, to my uncertainty over what I’m going to do once there, to a truly remarkable pep talk and career planning session from F, mapped out on a couple of napkins, to the history of humankind, to black holes, the theory of relativity and quantum physics (aided by drawings on the back of the same two napkins) we covered a fair bit of ground. And completely failed to notice the fact that a regatta was taking place on the river outside the pub at which we were having lunch.

F, it turns out, is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. And she shares my tendency to fixate on a topic about which I don’t know much and would like to know more, spend lots of time reading about the subject, feeling that I’m learning a great deal and understanding what I’m reading, and then completely failing in my efforts to later explain what I’ve read to anybody else. To paraphrase F – “I know I’m an intelligent person, and this stuff makes sense to me when I read it, so why do I sound like a blithering idiot when I try to explain it to somebody else?”

In my case, the topics I tend to read about and later fail to manage to explain properly to others, are politics, economics and social sciences. In F’s case, it’s astrophysics and human evolution.   Hence the discussion of black holes, the theory of relativity and quantum physics. Certainly not your typical girly lunch – it was by far the geekiest conversation I’ve ever had in a social setting, but wow, was it fun!

We came up with a few theories, too, for why it’s so difficult to explain what one’s read to a third party. F suggested that it may be related to habits formed at school and university, of committing facts to memory for just long enough to be able to regurgitate them in an exam paper, only to be instantly forgotten once the exam has been completed. If that is the way we train our brains to process new, complex information, then of course we are going to be completely unable to later explain what we have read.

My theory, though, is that that is only part of the explanation. Reading and understanding an essay or book on a complex topic utilises the analytical part of our brain. Later explaining it to somebody else requires us to draw on our creativity.  Unless we are able to exactly regurgitate what we’ve read, word for word, we are forced to explain it in our own words – and that is where the difficulty lies; it is in finding the right words to explain concepts that we do not fully understand.

But it’s not just complex topics that cause us problems. I had to confess that I often struggle to explain to friends and family, exactly what was so wonderful about a holiday I’ve just been on. I’ll come up with clichéd comments like “The weather was great, the scenery was spectacular” etc. but I struggle to explain exactly what was spectacular about the scenery, or what was particularly enjoyable about the holiday – my powers of description simply fail me. Similarly when I try to explain why I’ve enjoyed a movie, I’ll come up with clichés like “It was very funny” or “It’s a real feel-good movie” or “the special effects were amazing”– but to really go into depth about what I enjoyed takes a fair bit of time and thought.

As a result of this conversation, F and I made a pact – we will act as sounding-boards for each other, so in future, each time one of us reads an interesting book on a complex subject, we will provide an explanation of it to the other – so ensuring that we really have understood it, and, of course, passing on what we have just learned.   Whether or not we’ll actually stick to the pact, remains to be seen, of course, but we both very much like the idea.

This blog, like the lunchtime conversation, has digressed. So let’s get back to the original question I asked myself – what is the point of making new friends in an area I am about to leave?

The answer, of course, is that as we get older, new friends are hard to come by – and a good friendship does not require physical proximity to survive. Friendship is about connection, about helping us to feel less alone, less like we’re the only person with beliefs that run contrary to what our main peer group believes, less like the only person who spends their free time reading up on a geeky topic for no other reason than that we wish to know a bit more about it. It’s about finding somebody who can see us for who we are and decide that on balance, they enjoy hanging out with us.   We are all complex, multi-faceted individuals – no single friend is going to appeal to every aspect of our personalities, and as our lives and experiences change, so do our friendships.  And, of course, friendships are about fun, laughter, wine, conversation and everything that makes life worth living. So here’s hoping F and I remain friends for many years to come – after all, I still owe her an explanation of the book I am currently reading, about the need for less government, and we still have plenty more to discuss about black holes.  Not to mention further cycling adventures, of course.

* In the interests of protecting my friends’ privacy, I prefer not to give full names; those who find themselves mentioned will know who they are!

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One Response to Friendship, black holes and quantum physics

  1. David Sultanti says:

    Friendship I perceive, attracts like minded and establishes itself though shared joyous, exhilarating, demanding experiences, or something vaguely similar, blah, blah, blah. I sail on that boat, but what I find wonderful is when I encounter people straddled across the equivalent of a rubber dingy and high end catamaran. B and P are two chaps I know from my local pub and who have established a unique friendship. B originates from Indian stock, is a painter and decorator and likes to talk about the Arsenal football team and his sexual conquests. Personally, I think he’s a 34 year old virgin. P is a large and intelligent man from the counties who works as a manager at a cancer hospital. He is gay, appears to mostly mix with straight folk, and is prone to apologise for… anything, including apologising, which can get annoying. B encourages P to play pool at a dodgy den in deepest Dalston, B always wins. P retaliates by taking B to the opera, where B has never been known to stay awake. Separately, they can be dry, a little dull. Together, they bring out the best in each other and are at times hilarious. I no longer address then as B and P, but instead, “Dogs” and “Bollocks”, because together, they are just that. They also quite like my names, but only when both are present.

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