Oliver Cross: In knots over string theory

Here is proof that the path of true love never did run smooth and that sometimes you can't do right for doing right, whatever that means.

My friend Jane has been experimenting with internet dating and naturally I've been offering my help and support. Jane hasn't been reacting to my efforts with the enthusiasm you might have expected, but I put this down to her naturally shy and retiring nature which nobody but me has so far noticed.

Anyway after a few false starts, she met a charming man who was not only a part-time stand-up comedian but also shared her interest in advanced physics and string theory.

I hadn't suspected that Jane might have an interest in string theory because she had never brought it up with me, possibly because she knows her audience.

But it all came out at a post-Christmas gathering round at our house, when Jane terrified us all by announcing that her internet date would be calling round to meet us in about 40 minutes and (although she didn't need to say this) that was how long we had to pull ourselves together, smarten ourselves up, learn some string theory and hide the empties.

Actually, we didn't do badly on string theory; I perfected a line which went 'it's essentially about, like, everything basically, when you come down to it, innit?', although, like learning the Estonian for 'what is your favourite lunchtime snack?', it's not a conversational gambit which you can easily follow up.

I also thought that, being a stand-up comic, Jane's date might like me to improve my laughing technique.

This is not a problem unknown in theoretical physics circles – top Lincolnshire boffin Sir Isaac Newton (as we used call him when I started my journalistic career in Lincolnshire) signed up for laughing lessons because he was embarrassed by the fact that he had no sense of humour, even though I think establishing the laws of motion cancels out any laughter deficit, and, in any case, he also invented the cat flap. (Every word of this column, as regular readers know well, is entirely true).

Anyway, if I had had laughter lessons, my aim, should a stand-up comedian come to call, would be to listen carefully and thoughtfully to his jokes. Then as the full force of his comic genius slowly broke upon me, I would literally split my sides and my head would fall off.

Which fortunately didn't happen because Jane's date was far too nice and sensible to go into a stand-up routine, even though he did make us smile in a non-life-threatening way.

Nor did he get us involved in advanced scientific discussions, probably because it's very hard to bring up the subject of string theory unless you happen to be at a string theory convention, or by an unlikely verbal coincidence.

So generally, we just chatted away and tried to be on best behaviour, as if we were in an episode of Terry and June when the boss came to call.

Obviously there were incidents of incoherence, poor balance and inappropriate singing but I think we acquitted ourselves well and I can only think that Jane and her date, thanks to our help, got on so well that they've felt no need to talk to any of us since.

When soaps fall for the implausible

SO I waited with baited breath, or as much as I could do without having a clue as to what 'baited breath' might mean, for this week's 60th anniversary edition of The Archers on Radio 4.

This was to be the most stunning episode imaginable; the episode which would change life in Ambridge for ever, the episode which might even be a bit more interesting than string theory.

It turned out that this meant a pregnant middle-class woman had a bit of a scare but a caesarean section sorted it all out and nobody died. The baby was a boy and didn't have any hideous deformities.

Then a nice man called Nigel fell to his death while taking down a rooftop poster. Aaarrrggghhhhh, he commented.

It wasn't such a big deal as Coronation Street's 50th anniversary episodes, advertised as 'Four funerals and a wedding'; it was more like one funeral and a routine surgical procedure.

But I suppose the Archers did beat the Street in terms of plausibility and portraying the life of places where not much happens, which is everywhere except soapland and war zones.

I don't follow the programme but was pleased to see that, as far as I could gather, the father of the woman who had the caesarean had, after a period of estrangement and misunderstanding, accepted his new grandson.

I mean this is the sort of thing which happens more often than not and you can probably think of an example of it down your street or among your kin.

On the other hand, the Coronation Street side-plot involving John Stapes battering his stalker to death and shifting her body as the street collapses around him, is the sort of thing which, like hurricanes in the Home Counties or Borchester, hardly ever happen.

Detective's super

RETIREMENT has given me the time to do things I should have done anyway, such as reading Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

So far, I've only tackled A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes first meets Dr Watson (very topically just back from being badly injured in an Afghan war).

The whole thing, involving hansom cabs, sinister Mormons, ordeals in the desert and astonishingly perspicacious detective work, rattles along irresistibly, so you could only quibble if you expected detective stories to be wholly plausible and quite free of holes, which they never are.

The tales are so easy to read that popular dramatisations don't add much, but I think the BBC's latest TV version, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson), gets the spirit of the books exactly right.

This is not a pairing of a superman and his rather dim sidekick; it's two energetic twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the world, even though one of them could probably fit somewhere on the autistic spectrum and the other has been permanently scarred by his experiences in Afghanistan. Really, it's sweet.

oliver.cross40@googlemail.com

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