The case of the missing snowman
Scientists (and philosophers) are fond of 'thought experiments'. They imagine a situation, and think through its consequences. Albert Einstein's 'twin paradox' (where the one who travels beyond the earth at speeds approaching the velocity of light returns younger than the stay-at-home sibling) was a thought experiment. Many gadgets we take for granted today began as ideas in the heads of the far-thinking. The voice of a friend coming through a small hand-held gizmo we now call a cellphone is one.
One of my favourite 'thought experiments' is to fill an imaginary museum with artefacts that balance on the verge of meaning. The world's first wrong number, for example. Alexander Bell tries to call his assistant, but is connected to a nearby supermarket instead. Or the expression on the face of the first man to meet a tiger. Or the recording of the world's first swear word following an attempt by a clumsy caveman to hang the picture of his grandmother on the cave wall using a new invention called the hammer.
Sometimes, the fantasies involve material things that can be seen and touched.
But let me approach this from another angle. A woman in England recently made herself unpopular among policemen by reporting a crime.
According to a transcript of her call to the emergency service, the woman tells the operator: "There's been a theft from outside my house".
"I haven't been out to check on him for five hours but I went outside and he's gone," she says.
The operator tries to clarify: "Who's gone?" and the woman says: "My snowman".
The operator asks her: "Do you mean an ornament?" and the woman replies: "No, a snowman made of snow, I made him myself".
Which brings me to my original theme quite neatly. For among the fantasy objects in the imaginary museum, I have the world's first-ever snowman. Hats hadn't been invented then, so he would be bare-headed. Carrots hadn't been discovered, so he would have a pebble for a nose, and with marbles, coins and such substitutes for eyes to come only in the distant future, he wouldbe eyeless.
And this would have lasted millennia because its theft would not have been reported.
My gut feeling is that the woman might provide more material for the fantasy museum if only she was allowed to report the theft of other things she might not yet have noticed. Like the unicorn she never had but imagines must have been living in her closet.
Suresh Menon is an editor and author based in Bangalore, India. In his youth he set out to change the world but, on second thoughts, decided to leave it as it is. *To hear the original call made the police, click the video embedded to the left above.