Chapter 28 – Admit You Don’t Understand


Month 11, Day 25, Wednesday 10:45 a.m.

In Sebastien’s Natural Science class later that day, she found the slate experiment tables covered with equipment when she arrived. Glass beakers, half full with liquid, sat with spiral tubes coming from their rubber-sealed mouths. For every two beakers there were three small jars, each containing a piece of raw meat. Finally, rolls of gauze and wax paper.

Sebastien sat at her desk and examined the supplies with curiosity while the other students filed in.

As soon as the bell rang, Professor Gnorrish stood up from his desk and said, “We’ve spent the last month on a blisteringly fast review of the basics. Some of you had a better foundation in natural science than others, but this review should have given you a good understanding of where you need more study. Which is everywhere. In my opinion, every single one of you knows close to nothing.”

He waited for the mutters, frowns, and uncomfortable shifting to subside. “But that’s okay. I myself know close to nothing. I’m not afraid to admit that. In the grand expanse of reality—cause and effect and the underpinnings of how things really work—I understand very little. It’s important to admit when you don’t understand. And in your lack of understanding, you should be skeptical.”

Sebastien leaned forward, intrigued.

“That is the foundation of scientific progress,” he continued. “Before the Blood Empire, for thousands of years it was common knowledge, accepted by the learned and unlearned alike, that life could come from somewhere besides a progenitor. People believed that mice were created from the mud and heat of a riverbank every year in the summer. They knew that scallops formed in sand. Their parents and teachers told them that insects could be created, spontaneously generated, from decaying animal or plant matter, and people saw what they believed to be evidence that corroborated this universal understanding.”

He waved his arms around to emphasize the absurdity. “But no one actually understood the theory of spontaneous generation. They only thought they did, because the truth of it was before everyone’s eyes to see. They knew life was created by ‘spontaneous generation.’” He crooked his fingers into quotation marks in the air. “They knew things fell because of ‘gravity.’ They knew the answer to one plus one is ‘two.’ They had memorized the answer key, if you will, and could even do limited extrapolation from it, but their answer didn’t actually tell them anything about how the world worked. If they were given chalk, a fire, and no further components—limited to transmutation—they couldn’t have designed a spell array that could replicate the process through every microsecond and down to the very cells, indistinguishable from the natural occurrence. They didn’t understand.”

Replicating the process exactly with only transmutation? Is that his criterion for true understanding?’ Sebastien thought. It seemed an impossibly rigorous standard. So much so that she questioned whether he actually expected anyone to really achieve it, or if he was just trying to knock them down a peg so they would be more willing to learn.

“Now, let’s do a couple of experiments on spontaneous generation,” he announced with a huge grin, turning to the chalkboard at the front of the room and touching the control to reveal the instructions written there. “Move as quickly as possible while still maintaining care,” he urged. “There’s a lot to cover, and we only have ninety minutes.”

The two beakers contained nutrient broth. They were to be brought to a boil, thus killing any bacteria or fungus currently living within. When the students had finished that and were quite sure the mixture was sterile, they could remove the spiral tube from one of the beakers, exposing its mouth directly to the air.

The three jars holding chunks of raw meat were to have their lids removed. One was left open to the air. They tied gauze over the mouth of the second. The third, they sealed with the wax paper.

Once this was done, they labeled everything with their name, then everyone placed the meat jars into a Circle drawn on the floor on one side of the experiment space, and put the sterilized nutrient-broth beakers into another.

As they worked, Professor Gnorrish lectured, walking among them. “When testing a hypothesis, such as ‘life does not need to come from seed, eggs, or parents, but can spontaneously generate,’ we must attempt to disprove it. Only when it stands up to rigorous trials can a hypothesis be tentatively considered ‘truth.’ Even then, new discoveries and understandings may disprove your prior ‘truth,’ or simply update the depth of your understanding of the model.”

He stopped to help a woman who was having trouble tying her gauze over the meat jar’s mouth. “Historical documents show that some of the more learned and curious did do experiments on spontaneous generation. One lord even listed a series of recipes for creating various types of life. By all accounts, he carried out these experiments himself and recorded the outcomes. To create mice, put a piece of soiled cloth in wheat, and wait twenty-one days. To create scorpions, place basil between two bricks and leave it in the sunlight. Just more proof of spontaneous generation, right?”

Beside Sebastien, Ana laughed aloud.

Professor Gnorrish spun and pointed at her. “Ah! It sounds absurd now, right? How could they have believed such silly things? But don’t make the mistake of thinking the human species has gotten any more intelligent in the last three hundred years. If you were born in those times, and I was standing here in class explaining to you how spontaneous generation worked, would you think to question me? Would you think to question such an obvious process?”

Ana gave him a crooked smile, but didn’t answer.

“Let me phrase it another way,” he said, turning to the other students. “Have you ever questioned how life is created from seed, egg, or parent? Do you understand it well enough to replicate the process if the entire world were destroyed, and it was up to you to recreate life out of primordial energy? How are you sure that I know what I’m talking about, or that anyone does? Do you think it possible that in another hundred years, students will be standing in this classroom laughing at the absurdity of the things you currently believe?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Damien said from a few tables away. “You just said as much yourself.”

Professor Gnorrish applauded him. “Exactly. Your professors aren’t going to be able to teach you everything, or even most things, really.”

Damien preened.

“But back to experiments on spontaneous generation. Where these historical practitioners of natural science went wrong is that they didn’t try hard enough to disprove their belief. If they had, maybe they would have seen that their model of the world didn’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. So, today, we will scrutinize harshly.”

As the students finished setting up the experiments and placed them inside the pre-drawn spell arrays on the floor, he waved them away, then took out some components and began to place them in the spell array around the beakers with the nutrient broth. “Master Pasteur, a researcher working under the Blood Emperor, devised a test to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation of life. By boiling, we’ve killed any small organisms that were inside the beakers. You have removed the tube in the mouth of one beaker, while leaving the other. The liquid inside the beaker without a tube is directly exposed to any organisms within the air, while the spiral formation of the remaining tube will help to keep organisms from reaching the broth, while still allowing air to travel freely. Any dust, bacteria, or fungi will settle on the bottom of the successive spirals.”

He looked up from his preparation. “One of the theories was that air was necessary for spontaneous generation, you see, so we want to make sure that both have air, the only difference being that one broth will be exposed to everything, and the other will receive air with the impurities settled out.” He lit a brazier for power, reviewed everything, and nodded to himself. “Watch closely, now, to make sure I don’t pull any tricks.”

He stood, took out a small paper packet, and tossed its powdery contents into the air over the beakers. A fraction of a second later, an almost-invisible barrier dome sprang up from the spell array surrounding the beakers. “I have just thrown active yeast into the air, and the barrier is to keep any wind from blowing it around, as well as prevent other unexpected variables. It will settle and get into the beakers with the open mouths.” When the air inside the dome had cleared, he grinned. “I am also casting a modified healing spell to encourage rapid growth and reproduction of said yeast, which, if you remember, is a form of fungus.”

Sebastien’s mind latched on to a particular part of his statement. ‘He’s speeding up growth with a modified healing spell? It seems feasible. Magic can heal a wound or overcome a sickness much more quickly than the body would be able to on its own. Even whole limbs could be regrown with enough power and the right components. But how does that work? Could I do that to encourage an animal to mature more quickly? To have a fruit tree producing food within a couple of weeks, instead of years?

She looked at the components, one of which was a lumpy thing she didn’t recognize, but which had the telltale glow of being from the Plane of Radiance. ‘No, that’s much too expensive. It can’t be sustainable for any real-world application.

The students watched for the next few minutes with growing boredom as nothing particular seemed to be happening. Sebastien considered going back to her desk and trying to get some studying in, but remembered Professor Gnorrish’s admonition to be skeptical. ‘He might alter the results of the experiment if I’m not watching,’ she told herself playfully. She crossed her arms and glowered at him threateningly, looking over the spell array once again, this time to make sure he was really casting what he said he was.

When Gnorrish deemed enough time had passed, he turned the maintenance of the barrier spell over to one of his student aides and moved to the second experiment. “We’ll give that one a little time. Now, the recipe for maggots!” he announced dramatically. “Place meat in a warm place. Wait one to three days.”

He grabbed a small terrarium box full of live flies from the supply closet, activated another barrier spell, and released them inside. They found the uncovered meat quickly enough, and were also drawn to the gauze-covered jar. “Maggots take about twenty-four hours to hatch from their eggs, normally, but since you will be gone by then, we’ll just speed things up a little.”

When he was finished, he had another student aide take over that barrier, and resumed pacing around, the occasional wild gesture coming close to knocking against a table, piece of equipment, or a student who wasn’t prepared to dodge. “We’ve come a long way in the last few hundred years. New ideas and advancements have sparked a renaissance that has improved the lives of humans all the way from the Thirteen Crowns to the most humble pauper. But don’t mistake these advancements in our understanding of natural science as easy or simple. These new ideas, now accepted as common knowledge, were not obvious at the time, and were often simply one among multiple potentially plausible theories. Most of the time, new theories are disproved. Do not assume, without rigorous testing and extreme skepticism, that your shiny new idea about how things work is inherently superior just because it is new. All things must be judged for truth, and that which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”

Sebastien felt the rightness of those words. ‘That which can be destroyed by the truth should be,’ she repeated to herself. ‘Is there anything in me which might be destroyed by truth?

“There was a study done on University students a few decades back that judged how well they retained information after the class was over and they had no need to regurgitate what the teacher wanted to hear onto a test paper. The results were…abysmal. Shameful, for an institution of learning such as this one. More effort was poured into understanding why this was, and what we could do about it. We’re still doing our best, and still failing for a multitude of reasons, but there was one particularly interesting result of this research.

“Students who were willing to admit that they didn’t know, that they didn’t understand, rather than fumbling for an answer that used the keywords they’d been taught to associate with the topic, showed a marked increase in their ability to learn and retain information. They didn’t just fill in the blank with something, hoping to be right. They didn’t reach into their memory and pull out a phrase their teacher had written on the blackboard for emphasis. The biggest correlation with successful learning was how many times they continued to say that they didn’t understand.”

He continued to lecture, delving deeper into some historical discoveries that were controversial at the time, and the methods that were used in attempts to prove or disprove them. At the end of class, he used a spell to clean up the spilled yeast and the flies, then took away the barriers around both experiments.

Sebastien found her own quickly enough, her spider-scrawl handwriting distinct.

The nutrient broth in the beaker whose spiral tube she had extracted was cloudy with growing yeast. Little disks that looked like lily pads floated on top, and sediment settled to the bottom. It looked absolutely disgusting.

Maggots were crawling on the piece of meat with no lid, and interestingly, on top of the gauze-covered jar, as if trying to get down to the meat. The parchment-covered jar was free of the little squirming worms entirely.

“If you believed in spontaneous generation before you did these experiments,” Gnorrish said, “you should rethink your understanding of the world. Let me leave you with one last piece of information to chew on. Spontaneous generation among mundane living organisms has been widely disproved. If you told anyone you think a barnacle goose grows from a goose barnacle, they would laugh and think you an uneducated nincompoop.”

The bell rang, but no one moved to leave.

“But the current literature all agrees that under-bed dust bunnies spontaneously generate in dark, dusty areas that are frequently exposed to magic, likely from the dead skin cells of a magical being combined with other fluff and dirt.” He let that hang in the air for a moment, then waved his hands in a shooing motion. “That’s all for today. Go on then, get to lunch. But don’t forget to think. And don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know, and don’t understand!”

His words lingered in her mind through the next day, which started with Professor Ilma’s History of Magic.

The blue-tinted woman jumped immediately into the meat of class, as always. “There is much of history that is lost to us. The oldest signs of human civilization have been dated to approximately seven hundred thousand years ago. Not the oldest sign of humans, but the oldest humans that were obviously acting as sentient, sapient creatures and working together as a community to build a life. And yet, we know almost nothing about history beyond ten thousand years ago. Why is this?” She pointed to a random student.

“Because of the Cataclysm,” the student replied immediately. “Approximately ten thousand years ago, there was a catastrophic event that destroyed the civilizations of the time. Humans were set back to nomadic hunting and gathering. Whatever records these pre-Cataclysm civilizations would have kept were destroyed.”

Ilma nodded and continued. “It took approximately five hundred years for the population to expand and for people to start rebuilding. Written language was preserved among some, which helped to kick-start civilization again, and gives us some idea about times before, or at least what people several generations later thought they knew about the pre-Cataclysm world. But by then, much was already lost, with only scattered and contradictory tales passed down orally. At this point, humans were still far from the dominant species on Earth, and we were scrabbling to survive among the more powerful sapients and beasts. We had only just begun to develop, or re-develop, the foundations of structured magic.

“What caused the Cataclysm?” She pointed at a man.

He was less quick to respond than the previous student. “Umm, we don’t know?”

She nodded. “True. But there are theories. Many of them. Anyone?”

“A falling star hit the planet,” someone offered.

“Good. Keep going,” Ilma said, waving her hands impatiently.

“The Beast King woke from his sleep,” someone else said.

“The strongest thaumaturges in existence went to war with each other, with no care for collateral damage.” The answers were coming faster now.

“We were attacked by one of the Elemental Planes.”

“The Titans went insane.”

“Magic broke.”

“We were attacked by some alien force, or an eldritch being from the outer darkness.”

“Good,” Ilma said. “There is another theory. It’s a bit broader, and could have triggered many of the events you just mentioned.” Her voice went slow and cold, her eyes roving over theirs. “We experimented with powers better left alone.”

Sebastien shivered.

“But speculation aside, we do have some hints at the lost knowledge. Not enough to piece together a coherent tapestry, but enough tattered threads to guess that something was there before. Can someone give me a hint, the end of a thread that we might pull?” She pointed to Sebastien.

Sebastien straightened. “Where did the Blood Emperor and his people come from?”

Ilma smiled. “Yes. Good. Simple calculations can tell us that the planet is much larger than the area that we have mapped. The seas are dangerous, and the wilderness filled with beasts. But we have proof that other humans developed a society somewhere beyond the northern ice oceans. Curious, that although the Blood Empire ruled for over a hundred years and was a huge influence on our society, we know almost nothing about the place they came from.”

“It was deliberate,” Sebastien said. “It had to have been.”

“Yes, that seems the only logical explanation,” Ilma agreed. “Let’s pull on another thread. Hints at our lost history. Mysteries. Anyone?”

“Who built Gilbratha’s wall? It’s obviously a Circle. Could it have been part of the largest spell array known to mankind?” another girl asked.

Ilma hummed. “Not bad. Several different accounts claim different things. Some say Myrddin raised these stones. Some say it was here long before that, during the war with the Brillig, meant to be a huge weapon to wipe out their race. Some say it was here even before that, meant to be a shield against the Titans themselves. I don’t know who raised it, but divination spells hint it is very old. Almost certainly it was here before Myrddin, though it’s curious that there aren’t signs of occupation within these walls before his time. Some speculate that he may not have built it, but lowered wards that were keeping it hidden.”

“Could the walls have been pre-Cataclysm?” a student asked.

“It’s difficult to determine,” she said. “Preservation and warding spells could have maintained the white cliffs in relatively good condition from that time period, if they weren’t catastrophically damaged during the Cataclysm. But how was such a structure created in the first place? We would find it difficult to do today, even if we had a hundred of Archmage Zard. So either humans didn’t create it, or we created it when we still knew how to do such things.”

She went through the same thread-pulling process with half a dozen other students. Some had better questions than others, but she took them all seriously. Near the end of class, she said, “We’ve had some good discussion. But there’s one last thread I was hoping one of you would pick out, one that feeds all the way through the Cataclysm into our side of history. Anyone?”

She looked around, her eyes finally settling on Sebastien’s face. “Siverling. Make a guess.”

Sebastien was silent for a few seconds, then said, “The Titans? They were long-lived, and by all accounts survived the Cataclysm. So they should have known what came before. Supposedly they were intelligent. Enough to go insane, anyway. And incredibly powerful. So…did they have anything to say about the time before, or what caused the Cataclysm? And, if I remember correctly, the Titans were all dead just a couple of thousand years later. How did that happen?”

“Indeed, that is the query I was looking for. The Titans were enormous, and enormously powerful. Accounts from the time say that they were omnivores in the truest sense of the word. They ate anything and everything, from people to smallish mountains.”

Ilma turned and drew two stick figures on the chalkboard. One came to a little below mid-shin on the other. “This is the scale of a Titan compared to a human. But even if you consider the extreme caloric requirements of a being that large, if accounts from those living during that time are to be trusted, their appetites were still outsized. While we should be skeptical of any who claimed to have come into contact with a Titan and escaped uneaten, their ravenous nature is agreed on universally. Scholars have suggested that a large part of what they ate went toward maintaining the structural integrity of their impractically large bodies, which should otherwise have been unable to function, and that everything they ate was in fact being used as a Sacrifice for their particular brand of magic. Some even believed them to be gods. They did not seem to age, and they had strange, terrible powers.”

Ilma stared at the stick figure on the board for a moment, then turned back to face the students. “But all their power didn’t keep them from insanity. Some were beyond communication from the beginning of our records, but there are claims of reasonable Titans living in the wilderness, nonaggressive unless threatened. They fought each other sometimes, if they happened to cross paths. Perhaps the Titans were simply too dangerous, too strange and volatile and hungry, for anyone to question or get coherent answers from. Perhaps they refused to speak of the time before. Or perhaps they’d been damaged somehow, their minds or their magic broken. In any case, the last of these strange and terrible beings died long ago, and we are left with many questions but few answers.”

As if she’d timed it perfectly, the bell rang to signal the end of the class period.

Sebastien stayed in her seat for a few minutes, waiting for Ilma to say something else, to give a hint at what she, an expert, believed.

But Ilma was silent as the rest of the students filtered out.

Sebastien lingered, approaching Professor Ilma instead of heading for the Sympathetic Science classroom and Professor Pecanty. “What happened to the Titans, Professor?” she asked.

“They died,” the blue-tinted woman said with a faint smile.

“But how? Did they kill each other? Did the mortal races band together and kill them? Did they starve, or was their magic unable to sustain them?”

“There are quite a few different accounts, many of them contradictory. I can suggest a reading list if you’re curious about the topic.” Ilma wiped away the stick figures drawn in chalk and scribbled a list on a piece of paper.

When Sebastien took the list, she saw that it was accompanied by a slip for one University contribution point. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at the older woman.

“You’ll be late if you don’t hurry,” Ilma said.

Sebastien left quickly. As she strode through the slightly-curved hallways of the Citadel, she folded and tucked the point slip and the reading list into one of her pockets. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said to herself. ‘I don’t understand at all. If Ilma had some point for that lesson beyond confirming how little historians have been able to verify, and how frustrating a job that must be, I don’t know what it was. The space of things I still have to learn is the size of a vast ocean, wide and deep enough that no light can reach the bottom.

Rather than press down on her, the sense of this ocean surrounding her on all sides made her feel weightless, buoyant. ‘It’s all at my fingertips, just waiting for me to grasp it.

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