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The Time of Your Life

I was looking through my various folders of notes to try to bring something different to the end of term assemblies before Christmas when I came across a list that I could not remember using before.  The upside of being the Head of two different schools is that you can recycle material you used in your first incarnation in your second.  And working on the assumption that most people probably don’t really listen to what I’m saying, there is always the option for some judicious repetition.

Another year or so may allow the chance for another run through of the Tim Vine jokes I always enjoy, though I appreciate others may not.  For example, since I mentioned him: ‘So, I said to the gym instructor, “Can you teach me to do the splits?” He said, “How flexible are you?” I said, “I can’t make Tuesdays.”’  ‘So, I said to this bloke, “Did you know that Marie Osmond is about to appear in the world’s worst film?”  He said, “Warner Brothers?”  I said, “I already have.”’  ‘Crime in multi-storey car parks – that is wrong on so many levels.’  ‘At least it’s comfortable on Eurostar: it’s murder on the Orient Express.’

Moving on, one of the questions I like to ask when I am interviewing pupils for places at the school, though perhaps I should think about being more creative when I am looking for new teachers as well, is about Henry VIII and dinosaurs – specifically, ‘If you had met Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace in 1540 and asked him if he liked dinosaurs, what would he have said?’  The venue and the date don’t matter much, but the question is one that I find interesting.  Sometimes the answer comes back as a yes, sometimes as a no, sometimes as ‘off with your head’ – the last of which seems quite a plausible response.

The right answer, if such a thing exists, is that he would have said, ‘What’s a dinosaur?’ because dinosaur bones were not discovered until the late 1700s or early 1800s, depending on whether you believe Wikipedia more than Bill Bryson.  But it creates quite some food for thought that millions of people lived across thousands of years and never knew there were such things as dinosaurs.  I usually end by wondering out loud to my interviewees about what future humans might discover that we do not know anything about just yet, but I guess that is just what progress involves.  As the educationalist Barry Hymer puts it, ‘Answers are temporary resting places in our current understanding’, which may be one of the wisest things I have ever heard.

From Henry VIII, we can segue nicely into what would have happened in a fight between a stegosaurus and a tyrannosaurus rex.  Would the armour plating of the former have triumphed over the seemingly ridiculously small arms of the latter?  Were they both carnivores?  Would they have been battling for food, water or territory?  Or, in fact, would they ever have met?  Perhaps one lived in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern?  Did they have hemispheres back then?  

They would, in fact, never have met – but for reasons of evolution rather than geography.  The stegosaurus roamed the planet some 150 million years ago, which is approximately 80 million years before the tyrannosaurus rocked up about 70 million years ago.  It therefore transpires that the gap between the stegosaurus and the tyrannosaurus on Earth is longer than the gap between the T-rex and us.  I usually pause at this point to let the enormity of that fact sink in.  I’ve heard it dozens of times now and I still find it very hard to take it in.    

The theme of my assembly, based on the notes I rediscovered, was therefore all about time, with a few more thoughts to challenge what we might call conventional wisdom and to encourage the sort of intellectual curiosity that we surely need in our world, where what we used to think of as facts are no longer seen as being as important as shouting the loudest.

If we are looking for other gaps in time that may seem illogical, then consider that Cleopatra lived closer to the invention of the iPhone than to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza.  Again, I will pause to let that sink in.  The Egyptian queen died in 30 BC (or BCE, if you prefer), following her defeat alongside Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium and the latter’s suicide after Octavian invaded Egypt. 

This was 2,053 years ago, while the Great Pyramid at Giza was completed around 2560 BC, about 2,500 years before she was born.  The consensus view nowadays, apparently, is that Cleopatra did not die as a result of the bite of an asp, but rather she took poison in a more conventional way.  Regardless, we cannot let this moment pass without a reference to ‘Carry on Cleo’, surely one of the funniest films ever made, regardless of whether it would no doubt cause upset with a more modern audience, and with one of the best lines in movie history, when Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar declares, ‘Infamy, infamy…they’ve all got it in for me!’

Back to the timeline – which came first, Oxford University or the Aztecs?  You are probably getting the hang of this by now, so it will not be a surprise to learn that teaching at Oxford started around 1100, while the Aztecs flourished from about 1300 until the Spanish arrived and everything went to hell in a handcart.  The great Gary Larson summed it up nicely in one of his Far Side cartoons, ‘Unbeknownst to most ornithologists, the dodo was actually a very advanced species, living alone quite peacefully until, in the 17th century, it was annihilated by men, rats and dogs.  As usual.’

I also shared that only sixty-six years passed between the Wright brothers’ first powered flight and Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon.  The first Star Wars film came out in the same year that the guillotine was last used to execute someone in France, in 1977.  The Ottoman Empire still existed when Paramount Studios was founded, the former lasting until 1922, ten years after Paramount began in 1912.  The Eiffel Tower was built in the same year that Nintendo was founded, the former being completed in 1889 for the World’s Fair while the latter started out as a playing card company and was founded in the same year.  And Anne Frank, Martin Luther King and Mohammed Al-Fayed were all born in the same year, 1929.

And spare a thought for poor Pluto – the ex-planet, not the Disney cartoon dog – which did not even get to complete one orbit around the Sun between the time it was discovered in 1930 and the time it was declassified as a planet in 2006.  Because it is so far from the Sun, it takes 248 years to complete one orbit, so it did not get even half-way round.

Our final brain-teaser was to ask that if the history of the universe were placed on a calendar year, at what point would human beings appear.  The sobering answer is that we do not feature until around one minute to midnight on New Year’s Eve, leaving us, I think, with the inexorable conclusion that we are simply not as important as we think we are.

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