Practise and practice. What's the difference?

Here's a recipe for schizophrenia:  be an Australian author, who for preference writes in UK English, but who is published mostly in the US.  I'm well on the way to becoming a walking encyclopaedia of English dialect differences.  So let me share some of the madness with practise vs practice.

Practice with a C and practise with an S are two different parts of exactly the same word.

Practice is a noun.  In every English speaking country in the world, with one exception, practice is only ever a noun.  In that one other country, practice is also a verb.

Everywhere else, practise is always the verb.  Hence:

The doctor practises medicine at his practice. 

The US lost the S word.  So in the US, the doctor practices medicine at his practice.  Which to my eye looks horribly wrong.

Just to make it more fun, practise also used to mean to play a trick on someone.

The English practice originates from the Old French practiser, so that the 's' version is the original, and in medical Latin is spelt with a 'z'.  It also appears in Greek as praktike.  (It's also in Esperanto as praktike!)  Since it's in both Latin and Greek, that makes it a very old Indo-European word.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives practice as interchangeable these days, thanks to the US practice of spelling practise as practice.  (Confused yet?)

I checked Merriam-Webster's, and it says, to my astonishment, that practise remains acceptable usage in some parts of the US.  It doesn't say where, but I guess they mean New England.  It also gives practise as meaning to play a joke, in US usage!

The world's oldest organisation

I was talking to my elder daughter the other day about this question:  what is the world's oldest extant organisation?

The obvious candidate would be the Catholic Church, since it's approaching its 2000th birthday.

I think we can do better though.  My suggestion for the oldest organisation in the world is the Egyptian Public Service.

Egypt is recognizably the same country it was when Menes united the upper and lower Egypts in about 3100BC.  He must have created an organisation to run the place and I'm sure every Pharoah inherited it from his predecessor.

Even in periods when Egypt was thoroughly invaded by Persians, by Romans, by Muslims and by the French, there probably remained a small core of public servants, somewhere, who kept the basic wheels of government running.  (I'm talking about the public service here, not the governments that commanded it.)

I don't think there was any period when Egypt was so destroyed that there was no administration of any sort.  (Someone who knows Egyptian history better than me might correct that.)

If so, then the world's oldest organisation is a bit over 5,000 years old.

A recommended reading list

Poisoned Pen is a well-known -- one might even say famous -- book store that specializes in mysteries, thrillers and spy stories.

I won't copy the list here because it's their copyright, but it's only a click away and will open in a separate window.  They have it sorted by category, type and period.  As it happens, I am <ahem> on the list in the Greek/Roman section.

Casting aside what few dregs of modesty I possess, I'm going to suggest that this is a really, really good list.  I haven't read everyone on it, but I've read well more than half, and these are quality writers, even if you ignore yours truly.  If you read everyone on this list, you'd come away with a very extensive and a very broad knowledge of the genre.  

I was really quite impressed.  

On nurturing creativity

By Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love.  Best talk on writing ever.

The Athenian army

So, having correctly guessed the Higgs announcement, I'll revert to normal.  Let's talk about the army.

If you were a guy in classical Athens, and your father was a citizen, then when you turned 18 you joined the army.  No exceptions.  You were in for 2 years, which was boot camp.  Boots were known as ephebes.  Nico protests on several occasions in the books that he's done his time as an ephebe.  That's his way of saying he's paid his dues and though he might look young, he's a for-real citizen of Athens with all the rights and privileges that implies.

Athens had its equivalent of the stereotypical boot camp sergeant.  The ephebes were grouped by their tribe membership, and each group had in charge of them a man over forty years of age; someone who was voted by the citizenry to be a fine, upstanding examplar to the lads, and likely to instill the necessary virtues.  Which meant he was really, really tough.

Ephebe training was as much about instilling moral character as toughening you up and teaching you how to fight in a phalanx.  After the first year, you were given a spear and shield by the state and swore an oath.

It seems the ephebes spent a lot of time on guard duty.  They also patrolled the countryside.  I suspect phalanx training was drilled mercilessly, because the last thing you need in a battle is some idiot pointing his spear the wrong way.

Phalanxes work like this:  there are three rows (probably).  The younger men at the front, then the middle-aged, then the old men at back.  The phalanx is a very dense rectangle of men.  There's no such thing as individual combat.  When properly lined up, a man has his spear in his right hand (tough luck for the lefties).   He has his huge, round hoplon shield on his left arm.  The shield covers the left half of his own body, plus the right half of his left-hand neighbour's body.  His right-hand neighbour's shield in turn covers his right half.  This overlap is a natural consequence of everyone holding a big shield in their left hand, but stop and think about it for a moment, so you'll see what happens next...

When a phalanx charges at the enemy, it runs on an ever-increasing angle to the right.  Why?  Because everyone depends on their right-hand neighbour for some of their shield protection.  Everyone wants to nudge themselves a little more behind their neighbour's shield, and the neighbour is busy doing the same.

Generals know this will happen and have a fair idea how much drift there'll be.  They position the units to account for it.

It's not such a bad idea anyway, because although there's a lovely row of shields down your left flank, down your right flank there's absolutely nothing but exposed right arms.  This is why the right hand side of the line is considered the position of honour.  You only put your best soldiers there.  If your right flank gets enveloped, it's going to be a bad day.

Once contact is made, the whole thing turns into a pushing match.  Think rugby scrum with sharp implements and you're probably fairly close.  The idea is to break the enemy line, not kill the individuals.  Once a line is broken, the soldiers are utterly exposed without their shield wall and will typically run.

Warfare is normally a citizen-only exercise, but interestingly, the Battle of Marathon is believed to be the first battle in history in which the slaves fought alongside their masters.

And now for something completely different...

A little while ago I mentioned on twitter the rumour that CERN will announce discovery of the Higgs particle next week.

It's only a rumour, okay?  But I got a few questions from people wanting to know what's a Higgs particle and why does anyone care?  So here's the (long) summary:

You know all matter is made of molecules.  A couple of hundred years ago people thought molecules must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe.  But then it turned out there were teensier things called atoms.  

You can make all the millions of different types of molecule from only 92 different types of atom (number 92 is uranium).  For a while people thought atoms must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out that atoms had internal structure.  There were teensier things called particles.

All atoms are made up of three different particles: protons, neutrons and electrons.    The protons and neutrons stick together in the centre while the electrons whizz around the outside.  For a while people thought these three particles must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out there were actually hundreds of these supposedly fundamental particles.  Most of them have been given bizarre names, like the W particle, and the muon antineutrino, &/etc.

Then some of those "fundamental" particles showed signs of having internal structure.

That was kind of depressing because you might be noticing a trend here.  Physicists began to wonder if this chain of teensier and teensier things would ever end.

A fellow by the name of Murray Gell-Mann realized that, if you set aside 4 special particles to carry the known forces, and 6 particles that apparently had zero size (they're called leptons...the electron's one of those), then all the other particles could be explained by combining just 6 very weird looking things that he called quarks.  Gell-Mann was a huge fan of James Joyce, and quark is one of the made-up words in Finnegan's Wake.

This idea was unbelievably successful.  Using 6 quarks, 6 leptons, and 4 force carriers, you could cook them in different combinations to make every particle ever observed; hence build every atom; hence build every molecule; hence build everything.  What's more, the model allowed for combinations that made particles no one had ever seen before.  Physicists went looking for these, and promptly found every one of them, and never found anything that didn't fit.

So this is now known as the Standard Model.  Though I've called these things particles, when you do the mathematics behind this you treat all these things like fuzzy, amorphous blobs that only behave like particles when you look at them from far enough away.  When you look at them up close, they behave like fuzzy amorphous blobs.  The official name for the amorphous blobs is Quantum Field Theory.

The Standard Model doesn't explain why everything has mass.  Mass is the stuff that, when you kick something and it fails to move quickly, you stub your toe.  Mass is the reason why everything resists moving when you push it.

A bunch of guys thought about this, among them a certain Professor Higgs.  (That's Higgs, not Higgins.  The Professor Higgs of this tale is not known to have taught elocution to flower girls.)  Higgs et al. guessed that there must be another type of field (amorphous blob), that came to be known as a Higgs Field, that gave everything the semblance of having mass.  All the other particles are, in effect, swimming through treacle.  The treacle is the Higgs Field and the other particles have to push their way through it.

This was all pie-in-the-sky speculation.  But it was certain, given the way that Amorphous Blob Theory works, that if you concentrated the treacle enough and stepped back, then it would look and behave like a particle.  This inevitably became known as the Higgs Particle.

But no one had ever seen a Higgs Particle.  That was because, even in theory, the amount of energy required to concentrate the treacle field was simply enormous.

So they built the Large Hadron Collider to make concentrated Higgs treacle.  I'm not kidding.  The LHC cost about 4 billion dollars, and pretty much it's sole purpose is to find the Higgs Particle.  Because if we can find that, then we understand mass.  If we understand mass, then there's no telling what interesting things we might be able to do. 

So if the people at the LHC announce the discovery of the Higgs, then that's a very big deal.