Science is all about finding broad underlying theories that unite apparent differences. It is not a looseleaf book full of facts. But sometimes mere facts are so adamantine that they stop you in your tracks and make you smile or even gasp out loud. Think of Erwin Chargraff and his observation that the ratios of guanine to cytosine and of adenine to thymine are both unity. What limits that placed on the search space for the structure of DNA.
Laying in bed early one morning at the weekend I came across a not so grand fact. I was listening to a Talking Politics podcast in which David Runciman and Helen Thompson were joined by two Irish historians, Niamh Gallagher and Richard Bourke. The topic was the state of the UK union, and Ireland. The discussion meandered in and around some unique characteristics of Irish demography (at least in terms of European states).
Ireland’s population was greater in the mid 1840s that it is now. Perhaps one million souls starved to death in the famine, and maybe two million emigrated in the same decade. The population of eight million was reduced by close to 50%. The population today is just short five million. This much I knew already.
But what made me sit up with surprise was the relative populations of England and Ireland at the time of the Act of Union in 1801. Ireland’s population was about five million whereas England’s was only eight million. So, this pacification was undertaken by a country only slightly larger (in absolute terms).
YMMV, and the discovery of a fact is, in one sense, always personal, but this made me pause the podcast, jump out of bed, and gasp. How much of my inferred world is as mistaken as this example reveals it to be.