I once received a piece of junk mail of epic proportions. It came in the form of a beautiful glossy book with a cover almost A3 size. I wasn’t the only one. Ten thousand others had the same tome land with a thud on their doormats. Members of Congress. Libraries. Academics. Science Museums. Cultural Institutes. It happened when I was working as the Institute of Physics Representative in Ireland, a title that earned me the reputation of being a physicist although I was nothing of the sort – I just worked for them. My office was based in UCD – in a room I shared with the eminent physicist and founder of the Young Scientist Exhibition, Dr Tony Scott. Now Tony (if he is reading this) is hearing the full truth of this story for the first time. When it happened I might, at the time, have told him a little white lie in order to maintain his belief in my good character. Ahem.
I got a message that there was a large package for me to collect from the Post Office in UCD. I had to go over and lug it back over to Physics. Not easy with a 5.4 Kilo package. I open it up. It is a coffee table book called The Atlas of Creation by Harun Yayha published in Turkey. It is glossy with beautiful pictures. It looks like a popular science book on evolution. I’m flicking through. Wow. Expensive production. This would cost me about €75 to buy. Eight hundred glossy pages. A dream book for a school project on fossils and evolution. A sort of mega-sized National Geographic. And it has been sent to me for free. Unsolicited. Why?
Now I start reading. What’s this? The word “God” is on every page. Oh dear. I think it is advocating creationism. A sort of evidence-by-pictures proof of Creationism. An anti-evolution treatise. A creationist believer's book! I dip in to find out more. I’m distracted by the photographic plates dominating every page, but there are descriptions underneath. Mostly brief and repeated throughout the book – telling me that life forms on Earth have never undergone even the slightest change over millions of years; have never developed from one form into another. Pictures of million-year-old fossils alongside pictures of modern-day animals stating that they are identical. And each page rounded up with a sort of Q.E.D. in the form of: “therefore God created the universe and everything in it. Down with Darwin.”
Oh, but it is beautiful. What will I do with it?
It is not scientific. It is junk mail albeit expensively produced junk mail.
Why has it been sent to me, unsolicited?
Can I have this book on my desk and work for the Institute of Physics in Ireland?
Better call Saul. I mean Sheila, my colleague, a real physicist. She’s here for a meeting tomorrow. She is a proper physicist. She will know what to do. Tony isn’t here. Can’t ask him.
Sheila is horrified by the book.
“This is dangerous” she says. “If this gets into the hands of children they will believe it. That is how indoctrination happens. We can’t let it get out there.”
“But shouldn’t we put it down in the Physics library.” I try. “Let the scientists judge it for themselves. They’re smart people.”
“No. It is lies. It is false. It is propaganda. It is selling a false message using beautiful pictures.”
“Could I return it?”
“Yes. Mark ‘return to sender’ on it. And post it back.”
Now this is where my inner laziness gets in the way. I’d have to wrap it back up and lug it all the way back over to the post box. I’d probably have to pay to return it. It could cost about €40 to post back. It had come from Turkey. “That would be a pain in the neck. Haven’t time.”
“We mustn’t let it get into children’s hands.” Sheila continues.
“So what else can we do? Throw it away? Second hand shop?” And then I whisper. “Destroy it?”
“Yes.” Says Sheila firmly. “It must be destroyed.”
“Tear it up?” I ask weakly.
I look at the book again. Everything is screaming at me that it would be the most terrible thing to tear a book like this up. Who tears up books? Who burns books? Oh God. I’m in a medieval horror film.
I go first. Have a look at the cover and try to pull it off. It isn’t going anywhere. This is a well glued spine and strong hard cover. Okay open the book. Try tearing a single page. A beautiful fossil torn in half. That worked. Into the bin. Tear a few more. Sheila takes one side. I take the other. We start to tear several pages at once. And all of a sudden we are moving fast. We have torn up the whole book and rip the front and back cover off the spinal remnants. It is in tatters. We are sweating. I put as much as will fit in the bin and the rest in a plastic bag. Down we go for a coffee. Neither of us says a word about what we had just done. Sheila heads home.
I bump into friend and physicist, Emma Sokell, on the way back to the office. I confess to her. I need some affirmation. “I could never tear a book up.” She says. She is appalled. I can tell I have gone right down in her estimation. Oh no. What will Tony think?
I test out the story over the weekend on my family and friends. Everyone is horrified. “You TORE it up? A beautiful coffee table book? You should have let us see it. That is like burning books. How could you?”
I tell my friend – Fraser Mitchell, a botany professor, in Trinity. “Oh. We got that book too. I brought it down to the coffee room for students and staff to look at it. You can’t destroy books. Let the people judge.”
At a dinner party that night there is a major row. everyone is screaming about the tearing up of the book. A few days later I am back in UCD. Tony is there.
“Good morning Alison. Where did you park the Maserati this morning?” I sneak a glance towards the bin. It’s empty. Evidence gone. Phew. But did he see it torn up in the bin?
“Did you see the huge book that was on my desk a few days ago?”
“No.” Says Tony. I have to tell him.
“A beautiful book about fossils and creationism. It’s weird. I was sent it free. It was completely non-scientific. Enormous – a stunning production. But it was not scientific. NOT SCIENTIFIC. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t keep it in Physics. Physicists would hate it. It was so heavy. It was so glossy. It wasn’t science.”
“What did you do with it?” Pause. I can’t say it. Not to Tony.
“I returned it to the sender. Some guy in Turkey.”
A lie I’ve carried with me until today. Sorry, Tony.
© Alison Hackett posted 11 March 2020
Illustration © Alison Hackett March 2020
Alison Hackett — Director and founder of 21st Century Renaissance; author of The Visual Time Traveller 500 Years of History, Art and Science in 100 Unique Designs