Nelson – A Story of Courage

Apologies for the delay in this post. University life has been busy, and there have been a couple of nights recently which were spent wading through walls of sound while being intermittently blinded by coloured lights. In many ways, my nights out are similar to what I’d expect an alien abduction to feel like. Darkness, confusion, flashing lights and loud noise accompanying the sight of gesticulating silhouettes moving about around me. But, despite that description, going to the club always makes for an interesting evening (as it did last night) and so I shall no doubt be talked into going again next term.

For this post today, I will move away from complicated theories about time, size, space and other things and take a moment to admire the strength of spirit and courage that exists within certain historical figures. One person in particular has always been inspirational to me, not just because of the extreme bravery they showed, but also in their tactical brilliance.

Horatio Nelson is my favourite historical figure. Despite having a statue in Trafalgar Square, and of course having the square itself named after his greatest triumph, not too many people know his full story in detail. One quick google search and you can find an accurate description of him on wikipedia: “He was noted for his inspirational leadership, superb grasp of strategy, and unconventional tactics, all of which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories”. Having always loved strategic games myself, but having never really been overly courageous, Nelson’s story has always been an interesting one to me.

Having joined the navy at 12 years old, Nelson quickly rose to become an officer and later, after gaining command of his own ship suffered a wound at Corsica that led to the loss of sight in his right eye. As soon as he was able to sail again, he was given command of a 74 gun ship called HMS Captain and soon found himself involved in the battle of Cape St Vincent. Disappointed by the fact that his ship was at the rear of the fleet and would take a long time to be able to engage Spanish ships in battle, Nelson broke away from the fleet and disobeyed orders to engage three large Spanish ships. With command of the 74 gun ship, Nelson fought the 112 gun San Josef, the 80 gun San Nicholas and the 130 gun Santisima Trinidad in a vicious 2 hour battle. He had help later in the battle from another British ship, but nonetheless his victory was spectacular, as he captured two of the Spanish ships in the process.

Further battles against Spain took place in the months that followed. Hand to hand fighting at Cadiz would have led to Nelson’s death, had it not been for a seaman named John Sykes who saved his life, and was badly wounded himself in the process. A few months later came the battle of Santa Crus de Tenerife, in which Nelson led a battalion ashore by night, and was struck by a musketball which shattered the Humerus bone in his upper right arm. Nelson remained unfazed by his injury, refusing attempts to help him back aboard the ship claiming that he could do just fine with two legs and one arm at his disposal. He went to see the ship’s surgeon, showed him the mangled arm and simply said “the sooner it’s off the better”. He was up and about giving commands half an hour after the amputation.

The year of 1801 brought with it the Battle of the Nile, and more fighting against the French fleet. The British atacked the enemy fleet, despite having less firepower, and Nelson was once again almost killed in battle as a piece of French shot struck a glancing blow to his head, tearing a gash above his good eye. After being quickly patched up by the surgeon once again he came back on deck to direct the battle, only retiring to his quarters once the French flagship had exploded after catching fire.

The same year, Nelson fought in the Battle of Copenhagen. With three ships having run aground and heavy fire coming from gun batteries on the shore, Nelson’s superior officer gave the signal to retreat. Nelson raised his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see a signal” before pressing on with his attack. The fierce three hour battle ended in a ceasefire and diplomacy, before an armistice was signed. Nelson was then given the HMS Victory to command, and went on to meet the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar.

The opposing fleet had 33 ships to Nelson’s 27 during the Battle of Trafalgar, but Nelson remained confident of victory. Rather than fighting as one single line of ships versus the other, he planned to separate his fleet into squadrons and dissect the line of enemy ships at different points, surrounding and engaging them in pockets, inflicting heavy damage  before they were able to organise and respond to the unusual manner of attack. As an example of supreme courage to his men, Nelson wore his jacket covered with medals, clearly marking himself out to the enemy and making himself a magnet for musket fire. Musket shots were notoriously poor in terms of accuracy, and so it wasn’t complete suicide, but it was an incredibly brave way to show his men true courage and draw some of the gunfire away from them and onto himself.

As the gunfire erupted and the ships engaged each other at Trafalgar, Nelson was joined on deck by his flag captain, Thomas Hardy, and his secretary, John Scott. Almost as soon as the battle started, Scott was struck by a cannonball and killed instantly, with Hardy’s clerk then taking over the role. The clerk was then killed almost immediately before a piece of shrapnel ripped the buckle from one of Hardy’s shoes, causing Nelson to remark “this is too warm work to last long”. At around 1 o’clock, with the battle raging, a French sharpshooter in the mast of an enemy ship which was alongside HMS Victory, struck Nelson down with a musket shot. The projectile entered Nelson’s left shoulder, passed through his spine and ended up lodged under his right shoulder blade, inflicting injuries that no surgeon could repair. The following part of the story perhaps describes Nelson better than any other. As members of the crew were carrying the stricken Nelson below deck, he commanded that they stop a moment, so that he could give some advice to a midshipman on his handling of the tiller. Once below deck, Nelson clung to life for another three hours, and only allowed himself to die once he had been told that his fleet had won the battle.

I should also point out that along with suffering recurring bouts of malaria in his career, Nelson also suffered with sea-sickness throughout his life, making his victories all the more impressive.

While we should never revel in conflict or empire building as being glorious, I do feel that Nelson deserves his fair share of admiration as a remarkable example of courage and sacrifice in the face of adversity. I think the reason that I personally find him inspirational is probably because he had more courage than I could ever have, along with having tremendous faith in his own abilities.

For most of us, life isn’t about achieving the seemingly impossible, it is simply about making progress. We should never use failure as an excuse to stop trying or be defeated by falling short. When it comes to overcoming difficulties in life, the only thing we should ever really feel ashamed of is giving up. So, while approaching our struggles and fears with a willingness to fight will eventually allow us to look back with pride upon what we overcame, I think we can all take some extra inspiration from admiring the great struggles overcome by people like Horatio Nelson.


Sizing Things Up

This week, I thought I would take a look at the idea of size, the human perception of it and how it relates to the existence of all things. It has often been said that it is virtually impossible for a human mind to imagine and truly digest the idea of the universe and everything beyond it being endless. This week, I’ve flipped this idea on its head and will offer my personal insight into what the metaphorical soles of its feet look like, in the coming post.

In our everyday lives we constantly encounter objects, and we view the size of the objects in a way which is anchored to other objects around us. For instance, a car is fairly large, a planet is really vast, and an apple pip is small. We equate the size of all things to how they appear to us, and how they compare to everything else around us. This idea of size is something ingrained into our way of understanding the world we interact with, and is  constantly used and reinforced every moment of our lives. This means that when someone asks us to imagine endless infinite space filled with numberless galaxies, planets or even universes extending forever, it’s quite hard to imagine the full scope of that.

I should note that while our experiences make our mind want to repel the idea of the infinite, logic tells us we should embrace it as fact. Because, if you’re telling me that space ends somewhere…and I ask you what happens if I step the other side of that line – you can’t ever really give me a satisfactory answer that refutes the idea of endlessness. If you say there’s simply nothing on the other side of that line, well ok, then this ‘nothingness’ that you describe is what extends forever. The fact is, that something has to be infinite, even if it is ‘nothingness’. Furthermore, if a universe with stars, planets, solar systems and life forms happened to form in one place and we accept that there is an infinite expanse surrounding us, it actually means that no matter how long the odds were of life forming in one place, it becomes a mathematical certainty that there are an infinite number of alien life forms in existence in a never-ending number of other worlds. Of course, we’d never meet each other because only a couple of them possibly, (or maybe even none of them) are close enough to be able to reach us. Even if they had a life-span of 1,000 years and transported themselves within a light beam somehow and travelled towards us at the speed of light for their whole lives – they’d still die before they got anywhere near us.

But anyway, let me get on to the flip-side of this idea. While the idea of endlessly big things being tough to imagine is common, not many people think of how endlessly small things could be. You might say “ahh, but we’ve broken things down into molecules and atoms so we know how small things can be”. Are you sure? Because, hundreds of years ago we had no understanding that things too small for our eyes to see could exist, even though they were there. Theories about molecules were eventually proved, we discovered that molecules were made from atoms and then relatively recently the smallest particle of known matter was changed to something new: leptons and quarks. As technology has moved forward we have gained a greater understanding that things more miniscule than we ever thought possible, actually exist.

So, I’ll now hypothesise something that will involve you suspending your brain’s natural inclinations towards the concept of size. I’m not saying the following is my theory of what’s really true, just that it is not impossible, even though our minds want to tell us it is….

The only part of this I want you to focus on is the principle of size, everything else is just used as an example: There is a dog sneezing. One tiny particle inside a tiny particle inside an atom of a molecule of what is propelled from his nose at that moment is our universe. It’s filled with chemical changes and shifting energies on a scale so tiny that the dog does not have the intelligence or technology to ever see it, understand it or know that I am sat upon a tiny planet somewhere within the middle of its sneeze writing this blog. There would be know way of us knowing, assuming that were true, and we could indeed be entities smaller than microscopic, floating in a world far larger than our own universe. What if  our world right now in that way, and that within every molecule in our world exists particles smaller than leptons and quarks and inside every one of those was another dog, far tinier than could ever be detected by us – sneezing out universes. I mean, size is entirely relative. How far can you actually shrink an object and all the molecular parts of it. Limitlessly, in theory. I’ll mention here that scientists know that protons have 2,000 times more mass than electrons. They have no idea why. I’m not suggesting it supports my argument in any way, but it’s an interesting thought.

Now, make what you will of the dog example used, in truth, I could have left out the dog altogether but it clumsily represents something which is important to many people who feel certain that we were created. And creation is also plausible, although not certain to me.

Hopefully, after reading this you will conclude as I have, that something similar to this could theoretically not be too far from the truth, as concepts go. The endlessly huge can be almost impossible for the human mind to imagine – but it works the other way too when you think about that which we consider very small. I’m in danger here of heading in the same direction as my last post and concluding that, as things can be large or tiny to infinite degrees, the idea of size is just a human invention inside our heads and so doesn’t really exist. Perhaps I should just conclude that nothing at all exists and have done with it.

If we must accept the existence of size, we must also agree that like outer space/nothingness/whatever is beyond the nothingness – size is also endless, in both directions (big and small). If you fill a 1 metre square glass box with oranges and pose the question of how many oranges can fit in it, the answer then becomes….an infinite number. Because you have the box within a room within a country upon a planet within a universe which may actually exist within a particle of a particle of a particle which constitutes the skin of another orange, which is one of many oranges inside another glass box. Work that logic in the opposite direction and you’d have infinite universes, boxes and oranges within the glass box you were actually talking about in the first place.

Time for me to go and have a lie down I think….within my bed, which could theoretically exist within endless other beds.

Time and Travel

I’ve been thinking about time this week. What is time? Can we travel through it? These two questions have been at the forefront of my mind, and so I shall begin by offering my thoughts on the first of those questions….

The human notion of time is more or less as a tunnel that we are all passing through. We break down our passage through this tunnel into endlessly numbered segments and map those segments with devices called with clocks. In truth though, can we really be accurate in thinking of time in such ways? Long before humans even arrived in this world, clocks did not exist and time was not numbered. To understand time we must step outside of human constructions. That means the numerical system we have etched into our brains must be discarded, and we must boil everything down to the simple question of: what remains in the universe that indicates the passage of something akin to our ideas of time, when you take all human ideas and constructions out of the equation? The most obvious thing is the orbit of planets in our solar system, and chemical reactions. The expansion of our universe is perhaps another.

The movement of planets was the sole driving force behind the earliest clocks, which were dials using shadows to map the position of the sun, and if we are to say that time exists, then what is time other than the shifting of objects in space and the reactions of chemical compounds? The growth and decay of organic matter falls under the umbrella of chemical changes I would say, as we are made from carbon atoms. So if there were a theoretical way for us to reverse those reactions, move planets backwards in their orbital paths, shift all the molecules of our universe back to where they were yesterday, have we travelled back in time? There appear to be no other constituents of time itself to alter, assuming that we accept time exists, and so we could say that yes, we have. If that is indeed the case, then time travel is theoretically possible, while also being entirely impossible in any practical sense.

You might suggest that time exists outside of anything physical and time must still pass even if the universe and everything beyond it were simply nothingness. But in that situation where nothing at all exists, how can you ever get a grip on quantifying the speed at which time is passing? There is absolutely nothing to anchor the idea to. It’s like saying you’d still know which way is up or down. So, while we think of time as something which is always passing by and can be thought of as something we are passing through, in reality, it isn’t really that at all because it can’t be tracked or perceived in any way outside of our universe and how we understand the processes of that universe. It becomes a ghost. The truth, I feel is that time doesn’t exist at all. It’s just a concept in our minds. Matter continually shifts its location while energy is stored and released as that matter interacts with itself. That’s the only thing that factually changes. We simply tried to find a system to make sense of those things in a way that would be easy for our minds to comprehend, and then named our system ‘time’.

As a footnote, I’d like to add that if time were exactly as we imagine it, and it is possible to pop out of a little hatch on top of the tunnel of time, and re-enter through another hatch at a different point in it, then the fact that no time travellers have showed up in our present or past, indicates one of two things: either human beings never work out how to do this at any point in the future, or we wipe ourselves out before we get a chance. Given the massive upswing in the technological trajectory of our species in recent decades, you would expect us to work out time travel within the next hundred years or so if ‘time’ exists as we think of it. If we worked out time travel, we would immediately get billionaire time tourists booking a trip just as they are on the brink of doing right now with trips to the moon. Hundreds of people would be appearing from nowhere, having travelled from the future.

So, either I’m onto something here, and time is entirely different to how most people perceive it, and essentially, doesn’t exist….or we will wipe ourselves out of existence within the next hundred years. Both scenarios seem entirely possible to me.