Saturday, April 16, 2011

Background information: The wisdom of stone

At the Cavern Exploration School at Alpha Centauri, they teach about the many dangers of spelunking throughout the known galaxy: landslides, sudden washouts, poisonous gas, sand buryings, gaping pits, acid baths, equipment failure, alien monsters, suffocation.

But as Doctor of Speleology and veteran explorer Mendius Schlum says as the first lesson in his class "The Fundamentals of Caving," the primary danger facing any cavern explorer is, ultimately, rocks.
This prompts the more alert students to ask, what kind of rocks?  Cracked and weakened?  Corrosive?  Radioactive?  Explosive?

"No, not that kind of rocks," says Schlum.  "The rocks you most have to worry about are your own.  The rocks in your head!"

As he goes on to explain, most of the dangers a cave explorer faces are, ultimately, those of their own making.  Over thousands of years, caves settle into a situation of minimum energy.  Landslides don't happen randomly; if they were going to, they'd probably have done it centuries ago.  Over time, rocks, water, sand and stone, they settle.  But that state of equiliberum can upset easily.  A pushed boulder could release a deluge of water, washing the sand from in front of a sealed cave, releasing poisonous gas.  Whatever you do, you must do it with care, lest you set in motion a chain of events that could spell your doom.

And yet, everything you do in such an environment changes it.  Your footsteps echo across the stone vaults, possibly unsettling a pile of rocks.  The pitons you hammer into sheer stone walls to climb them unavoidably damage those same walls.  To pass a blocked route requires pushing boulders.  To find sunken chambers, you have to swim.  Even the air you breathe is a limited resource.
So, you're in an environment in which everything you do could be foolish, because just being there is foolish.  But here you are anyway.  According to Schlum, learning what choices are less foolish than others is the beginning of wisdom.

The wisdom of stone.

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