The speed of thought

Long ago, in a place far, far away, something happened that I have never forgotten, and never understood.

I was in Saint James Catholic grade school, taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. I don’t remember much about those days, but what I remember is true. They all had boy’s names. The principal was Sr. Paul Joseph. She was about 6 ft tall and tough as well done flank steak. The best nun was Sr. James Marie, who had at least one girl’s name. She taught one of the early grades, probably first. I don’t remember anything about her class, but I have a lasting impression that she was good and kind and gentle, unlike any of the other nuns. I also remember that she got sick for a while because I vividly remember the day she returned. We were outside playing and it was warm and somehow we found out she was back and some kid pointed, “There she is,” and we all took off running toward her.

In those days, I was the fastest kid in the class, so I was the first to get there and experience my first serious case of the “now whats.” I hemmed and hawed and swayed back and forth and told her how glad I was that she was back, and…that was about it. I didn’t even think about hugging her, which would have been the best thing to do, because you just didn’t hug nuns in those days. A few moments later, the rest of the kids arrived and we all participated in the now whats for a while. Sr. James Marie was gracious, as always, and walked back to the school door with all of us surrounding her. Then I went to sleep and woke up a few years later.

The only other nun I remember from those days is Sr. Mary Norbert. She may have been the one who evoked the memory I’ll talk about shortly, but I’m not sure. She is certainly the nun who punished me one day by making me pick up all the books in my desk and hold them in my arms while kneeling in the aisle. I think that’s the origin of my chronic lower back pain. OK, so it probably wasn’t Sr. Norbert who said what I’m about to quote, but it was one of those St. James nuns.

We were having a theological discussion and someone (not me) asked how fast angels can travel. That’s the kind of stuff we wondered about in those prepubescent days. Without hesitation, she answered that they travel at the speed of thought.

I think she meant really, really fast. She could have said they travel at the speed of light, but that would associate angels with something tangible, something in the material world. So she gave an answer that couldn’t be questioned, or checked, or even understood. I thought it was an odd answer, but didn’t question it. No one did. Later, after aging a bit, I would think about it again and wonder what kind of experiment one could concoct to measure the speed of thought.

Now, when I think about it, her answer seems a little too pat. It sounds like something theologians wrangled over at the Council of Trent, or some other august conference. You know, how fast can angels get from heaven to earth to gather on their favorite pin head? So some smart theophilosopher snaps his fingers and says, “As fast as you can think it, the angel is there!” Everyone’s mouths gape, and the Pope says, “I think we’re done here.”

So how would you do it? Measure the speed of thought? First it’s important to define what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the speed at which thoughts bounce around inside the brain. That we could probably measure by timing neuron firings and chemical reactions and relating them to what subjects are thinking about and what area of their brains light up in an MRI. No, what we’re talking about is the speed at which thoughts travel through space on their way to a thought receptor. So before you could measure the speed, you’d have to perfect thought transfer, aka mental telepathy. Once you had that going well, you could then carefully measure the time it took for one person’s thought to travel to another person a known distance away; like in orbit around the earth. You’d have to control what the sender was thinking about, say, by flashing an image suddenly in from of them, and correct for human reaction time, but in theory, you could do it.

My guess is it would turn out to be the same as the speed of light, but maybe it would be virtually instantaneous. What a way to communicate!

DadMemories12/14/07 0 comments

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