Turtles All the Way Down

There’s this story, you probably know it well. Some say a matron approached Bertrand Russell (or was it another scientist) after some lecture on the solar system. Dead wrong, she told ‘im. It’s a turtle. The world’s flat and carried on the back of a turtle.

And what’s the turtle standing on? the gentleman asked.

Turtles I
Turtles I

You can’t catch elderly ladies (or was it preacher men? or heathens?) out so easily. Laughed, she (or he, or they) did, at Mister Clever Scientist, and said, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

Turtles II
Turtles II

And that makes about as much sense as the above photograph, which would either be things disobeying the laws of gravity, or perhaps it’s just that I didn’t rotate that photo because I liked the way it looked tipped on its side. The reflections make ’em look very symmetrical, eh?

So it’s turtles, all the way, ad infinitum. I’ve perhaps found some evidence: it appears that regular turtles as well as world-supporting space turtles sometimes stack one atop the other.

Turtles III
Turtles III

I may have to go to an indulgent pet store and experiment with some of their turtles, because it looks to me like those short stubby legs can’t directly reach the domed shell below. You’d either have to have progressively larger turtles, or perhaps a conga line of turtles, all sort of balanced on top of one another with their legs on the ones fore-and-aft. Tough luck for the first and last in line, I suppose.

Turtles IV
Turtles IV

Then again, if we could have an infinity of turtles beneath, I suppose they could be infinite sideways as well.

Of course, Terry Pratchett pointed out why that old idea was completely scientifically invalid. Good try with the infinity of turtles, but all those postulating same forgot a salient fact: turtles swim.

In fact, this bloke may have been out for a bit of a bathe with the duck that’s now sleeping before him. That, or he’s a bit miffed at having his nice, uncrowded log invaded by a duck just as he was having a proper sunbathe for the first time in a week.

Turtles V
Turtles V

This one looks as though it got rather inelegantly stuck. Is that what would happen if the world turtle beached somewhere in the universe?

Turtles VI
Turtles VI

Awkward for Earth, which would probably slide right off.

Turtles VII
Turtles VII

Of course, we’ve got all sorts of things orbiting Earth now in all directions, and I expect we’d have figured out by now if the world was flat, and got a few good photos of the turtle we’re on the back of. I wonder what elderly ladies/preachers/heathens pressing the case for turtles would have to say after watching a video of a complete orbit by the International Space Station? Probably would claim it a hoax, alas. People tend to cling rather tightly to their beliefs sometimes.

Turtles VIII
Turtles VIII

(There’s a turtle there, off to the left, if you look closely enough. It’s hanging with the ducks on that ephemeral island.)

I’d rather not cling. As I walked through Juanita Bay Park yesterday, I glanced up at the sun, shining brilliantly in a blue sky, and got giddy with wonder at the sight of it. It’s just the sun, I know, but it struck me forcefully at that moment that I was looking at a star, up close. This enormous yellow-white thing warming the park and lighting the scenery was intimately related to those glittering diamond-points of light in black night skies. We know how it evolved, and we know how it will end. We’ve seen its face. That’s amazing. It’s far more fantastic than any legend about turtles or gods just poofing things into existence.

I’ve been thinking of religion, lately – almost went to church last Sunday, in fact, but not for reasons you might think. (I’ll tell you why shortly. You’ll laugh.) I’ve been thinking of religions that have died. We call them myths, and don’t take them seriously. We relate to them as stories, use them as metaphors, and enjoy them without once believing in their gods. I’m looking forward to the day when the religions of today become myths. I hope this time, they’re replaced by reason.

We figured out it’s not actually turtles all the way down. One day, soonish I hope, we’ll figure out the gods are just as non-existent.

Afterward, the turtles will still be stacking up at Juanita when the sun shines on Seattle, and we’ll still enjoy our time together on this round and certainly not turtle-transported old world.

Turtles All the Way Down
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12 thoughts on “Turtles All the Way Down

  1. 1

    Of course with religion it’s lies all the way down. A whole infinitely silly stack of em. Turtles at least are way cooler than deities, and real, too.

  2. rq

    I want the turtles-all-the-way-down photo, in exactly that orientation. It’s a great WTF conversation piece. :D
    Love this meditation, turtles and truth – a fabulous combo!

  3. 3

    According to the ever authoritative wikipedia turtles all the way down story was told in the 1850s and a version of it with rocks replacing turtles was told even earlier.

    The anecdote has achieved the status of an urban legend on the Internet, as there are numerous versions in which the name of the scientist varies (e.g., Arthur Stanley Eddington, Thomas Huxley, Linus Pauling, or Carl Sagan) although the rest is the same.

  4. 4

    I’ve seen the turtle-jams before when I was out wandering in Minnesota. I wanted, at the time, to record video of them and do audio-overs of traffic sounds – because it looks like Boston rush hour on some of those major ‘road’ logs…

  5. 5

    “And Yertle the Turtle, oh marvelous he
    Was King of the Mud — that was all he could see.
    And the turtles — well, all of the turtles were free,
    As turtles — and, maybe, all people — should be.

  6. 6

    Turtles… what does that remind me of? Oh yeah, that awful turtle-shell back brace which I am NO LONGER WEARING! So I can thoroughly enjoy these lovely turtles.

  7. 8

    Ah, turtles. My Santa Clara Valley (California) is crossed by many streams that have been thoroughly excavated and bank-supprted for flood control. But the local wildlife haven’t seem to have gotten the message. They range the backyards at night, and hang out in those now-somewhat-overgrown bank-supported stream drainages by day. An enormous turtle of a native species appeared in my yard one day. It was gorgeous, and I took many pictures. Thinking that it was too big to be wild, I canvassed the neighborhood with the pics, but with no response. In a couple of days it was gone.

    Now I think it was just an older turtle on walkabout.

  8. 9

    As I recall, I was taught in High School Biology that “turtle” properly applies only to sea turtles. Land-only types were tortoises, and the type seen here were properly to be called “terrapins”. Of course, they also taught us that Giant Pandas were closely related to elephants, or raccoons, or squid, or anything other than bears. Now, of course we have DNA that shows them to be … bears.

    I love the second picture. Apparently turtles, unlike money, do grow on trees.

  9. 12

    My favorite story about an interlocutor of Russell:

    I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others.

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