‘Lies to children’: From folk to formal science in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

By Mikaela Springsteen

Paul Kidby, ‘The Faculty’ / Joseph Wright, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’


Terry Pratchett is known for the incredible intertextuality of his work, especially in his famous Discworld series. He borrows—or steals, as all the best artists do—from the greats of the cultural canon. In fact it is the stories—the literature, fantasy, folk stories, and histories—of our world, of the so-called ‘Round World,’ which quite literally power the Disc. Pratchett’s use, deconstruction, and reconstruction of these stories have all been the topic of study before, but one discourse which Pratchett drew on quite a bit has been somewhat absent from Pratchett Studies thus far: science.

Early in his career Pratchett was a press officer for a nuclear power station; his interest in and fondness for new forms of technology has been well documented; he collaborated with the scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on four ‘Science of Discworld’ books; and, although he is perhaps best known for the broadly ‘fantasy’ series of the Discworld, Pratchett was also an accomplished science fiction author (The Dark Side of the Sun, Strata, the Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter)—a genre which has both incorporated and inspired scientific advancements. His life-long interest in science is reflected in his fantasy works as well. In the case of the Discworld series, much can be said about the Discworld as creation myth:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld.  A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Wyrd Sisters
The Great A'Tuin, the world turtle. There are two theories which purport to explain the behavior of the Great A'Tuin: Steady Gait and Big Bang. Inspired by the scientific concepts of astronomy, cosmology, zoology, the steady state model, Big Bang theory

To use a popular fan formulation: from a ‘Doylist’ (or out-of-universe) perspective the Discworld clearly draws on the mytheme of the world turtle. But from a ‘Watsonian’ (or in-universe) perspective, this cosmology is explored and understood scientifically (as in The Color of Magic). Other seemingly far-fetched phenomena on the Disc are similarly explained in a rather rational, even techno-scientific tone, and the series is scattered with references to collective intelligence, time dilation, and the theorized eleven dimensions of the multiverse.

This article explores how Pratchett leads us to think about the practice and culture of science. It begins by taking a look at what science looks like in the context of the Disc, then exploring the two primary groups of Discworld scientists, and finally finishing up with a look at why the use of science in a nominally fantasy world might be worthwhile to explore.

1. Science spotter’s guide

We begin by asking: how do we know when we’re looking at science on the Disc? It’s fairly obvious that we can’t look for the application of specific real world scientific theories or principles. On the Disc, million to one odds succeed nine times out of ten (Eric, The Last Hero, Guards! Guards!, Small Gods). The Discworld does not run on science, but on magic and story—metaphor has more power on the Disc than Newton does. Yet this doesn’t mean that there is no science on the Disc. Science is not just an abstract collection of rules and principles but the result of a group of people working, studying, interacting, and fighting as a community over the years. As a result, it has built up a culture around itself, as communities do.

So just as Pratchett used the culture of sports fans in Unseen Academicals, journalists in The Truth, and Hollywood in Moving Pictures, he’s included references to the cultures of science throughout the Discworld series. By looking for these references and how they are used, we can start to get an idea of how Pratchett is leading us to think about science and scientists.

Scientific disciplines: Meet the ologies

In perhaps the most general and easily spotted case, we can look for scientific disciplines which Pratchett explicitly or implicitly names throughout the series. 

Pratchett’s alchemists (Moving Pictures) practice a form of proto-chemistry which largely involves the regular destruction of their Guild building in a series of major fires and explosions. In classic Pratchett style, echoes of the alchemists are to be found in their Roundworld counterparts—chemists. Recalling the destructive capacity of the alchemists, the chemists who developed napalm in the second World War conducted their first tests of this new, shockingly destructive weapon on a Harvard soccer field in the middle of a major city.

Engineering is a popular pursuit on the Disc, with engineers building trains (Going Postal, Night Watch, Raising Steam), time bombs (Thief of Time), and the clacks (a telecommunications network inspired by semaphore, telegraphs, and the internet; Going Postal). These often idealized engineers may be motivated by the desire to solve technical puzzles, or to improve the lives of ordinary people. Yet their new technology is often met with the interference of moneyed outsiders, who attempt to turn their projects into profit generating machines instead.

Of course, the classic naming convention of a scientific discipline generally relies on the use of an ‘ology,’ and there are plenty of these to be found on the Disc—both real and invented. Most notably, these include the twin dark arts of psychology (Making Money) and headology (the Witches series). The most straightforward explanation of headology is something akin to the Roundworld’s placebo:

“‘So people see you coming in the hat and the cloak and they know you’re a witch and that’s why your magic works?’ 

‘That’s right,’ said Granny. ‘It’s called headology.’” 

Equal Rites

But the power of the witches is also contrasted with certain sciences, with Pratchett perhaps hinting at some of the ideas of the anti-psychiatry movement:

Granny Weatherwax had never heard of psychiatry and would have had no truck with it even if she had. There are some arts too black even for a witch. She practiced headology—practiced, in fact, until she was very good at it. And though there may be some superficial similarities between a psychiatrist and a headologist, there is a huge practical difference. A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavor to convince him that monsters don’t exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick.

Maskerade

Anthropology (The Color of Magic), mathematics (Interesting Times, Making Money), and physics (Night Watch, Interesting Times) each also have their moment in the Discworld’s peculiar sun.

Scientific communication: The lingua quirma of science

But calling out specific disciplines by name is not the only way in which science is referenced on the Disc. Many of the references are more subtle or obscure. Someone might not understand all of the scientific references, just as someone might not understand all of the cultural references.

Much of this reference is predicated on the fact that science has its own recognizable form of language. Scientists, in a range of fields, adopt a specialized terminology—some of which transcends subject matter divisions, and some of which is specific to a certain field—and Pratchett uses this lexicon to great effect.

On the Disc, there is perhaps no better example of this use of language than in the character of Ponder Stibbons. Ponder’s dialog often explicitly calls on the language and theories of math and physics to describe magical effects, and the structure of his explanations would be familiar to anyone who has read a mathematical proof.

‘…a classic Bag of Holding but with n mouths, where n is the number of items in an eleven-dimensional universe, which are not currently alive, not pink, and can fit in a cubical drawer 14.14 inches on a side, divided by P.’

Making Money

The language used to describe the magical computer Hex is equally reminiscent of scientific terminology. Besides Hex’s many references to computer parts—being full of bugs, having a sheep’s skull (or ‘RAM’) as an essential component, and using an aquarium as a screensaver—its use of an anthill and beehives to perform complex calculations echo what we know of swarm intelligence and modern artificial intelligence. The Dean—and other wizards’s—disdain for Ponder’s use of Hex to solve magic problems (Interesting Times) is also reminiscent of the mathematical community’s reaction to the computer-assisted  Appel-Haken proof of the Four Color Theorem.

Other Discworld characters who speak in the language of science include Detritus (at least, when it’s cold out), Dick Simnel, the camel You Bastard, and the golem Mr. Pump (in Men At Arms, Raising Steam, Pyramids, and Going Postal respectively).

Scientific purpose: Falsifiable predictions and useful explanations

Of course, there is more to science than language, and beyond the surface culture of science, it is, at its core, a practice. For all the disparate disciplines and communities of scientists there is a unifying principle they share: that science is a way of organizing knowledge according to a set of falsifiable predictions and useful explanations.

Science can be found in the efforts of someone trying to make sense of the world around them, and we see plenty of attempts at such sense-making—or theory building—on the Disc.

Perhaps the most commonly cited example of this is the Captain Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, which describes the added expenses incurred over time by people unable to afford the ultimately cheaper option:

A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

Men At Arms

This idea is, of course, not original to Pratchett. It is partly expressed in the old saying, “penny wise, pound foolish,” and, more formally, in the political economy of Engel Curves or the so-called “ghetto tax.” Pratchett’s version of the concept has the advantage of being vivid and memorable, and infused with the distinctive character of Sam Vimes himself, and so is often cited in online discussions of the phenomenon.

Other theories, including The Trousers of Time (Guards! Guards!, Thief of Time), Second and Third Thoughts (A Hat Full of Sky), The Law of Conservation of Reality (The Color of Magic), and Narrative Causality (Witches Abroad), not only sound ‘science-y’ in terms of naming conventions, but also the logic by which they are defined would feel familiar to many Roundworld scientists.

2. Folk or formal science

Given that magic on the Disc is the thing most often written and spoken about with ‘science-y-sounding’ language, is described and understood with ‘scientific’ principles and logic, and is the subject of just about all the Discworld equivalents of Roundworld scientific disciplines, it comes as no surprise that when searching for the major groups of scientists we look to the magic-users.

Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett constructs a dichotomy of magical practice between the witches and the wizards.

Wizards pride themselves on the mastery of formal magical rules—learned and practiced largely within the institution of the Unseen University—while witches work outside of such institutions and work their magic not from books, but from a more oral tradition, and practical understanding of the world around them. 

It also turns out that these two groups correspond rather neatly with two broad divisions of scientific practice. Wizards represent the group of formal, professional scientists—working within the institutions of scientific achievement. Witches, meanwhile, practice a folk science which is closely tied to the culture and needs of their local community. 

Folk science

The concept of a ‘folk science’ can mean—and has meant—different things in different contexts. In various times and places, it has had associations of pseudoscience, or of citizen science, or of marginalized Indigenous knowledge practices. Here, by ‘folk science,’ I mean primarily to discuss science which is learned and practiced outside of its institutions of governance. On the Roundworld these institutions include journals, universities, and conferences. On the Disc, it is largely represented by the Unseen University, with its many complicated institutional processes and academic roles, including the ‘Chair for the Public Misunderstanding of Magic, the Professor of Virtual Anthropology, the Lecturer in Approximate Accuracy, and the Chair of Experimental Serendipity’ (Science of Discworld 2). 

As a result, folk and formal science end up looking and acting somewhat differently to one another, even as they both attempt to do a form of science—that is: to organize knowledge about the world according to a set of predictions and useful explanations.

You might think about it as the difference between a Formula 1 driver, and what happens when the rest of us get behind the wheel of a car. No one could argue the fact that the professional racing driver has a more in-depth technical knowledge of how to make a car go fast, but at the same time I really don’t need to be going 300 km/h on my commute, and I have a better understanding of local traffic patterns than that driver would. Though, at the end of the day, we’re both just trying to drive a car.

Formal wizards, folk witches

Unseen Academicals

Beyond the setting where scientific skills or knowledge were acquired and the degree of abstraction typically at play in folk or formal science, how is it that Pratchett is leading us to think about the differences between witches and wizards and so folk and formal scientists?

Discworld wizards are petty, jealous, and proud creatures. They spend just about all of their time locked away in an ivory tower reading books, arguing about the finer points of ‘virtual anthropology,’ and opening doors which maybe should not be and which will, once opened, prove impossible to close. They are regarded with a kind of benign suspicion and bewilderment by the people around them—from whom they live and work at a considerable remove—and they kind of bumble around when trying to find the answer to some question or other. However, they are most certainly not stupid—Pratchett tells us that a stupid wizard wouldn’t last very long at all—though they are perhaps more smart than clever. They’re also power-hungry and can be dangerous, as the traditional path to advancement by killing off the wizard whose job you wanted will attest. 

At this point, the takeaway for formal scientists is perhaps looking rather bleak. They seem to be generally obsessed with power and knowledge. Perhaps the best thing you could say is that their work generally doesn’t interfere much with the lives of the people around them—although when it does it has the potential to be lethal.

What of the witches?

Hat Full of Sky, A Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett

To start, they have some things in common with the wizards: “petty, jealous, and proud” could also pretty well describe your average witch. The natural coven size is famously one, as witches are also very competitive. Witches are also treated as suspect by their neighbors, though they are the subject of perhaps more obvious respect and fear as well. Yet unlike wizards, witches do not ‘bumble.’ They are direct and self-assured—or at least maintain an air to that effect—and are certainly very clever and very dangerous to cross. Of course, perhaps the most important thing about being a witch is knowing the right things at the right time, and using that understanding of the world to nudge it in one direction or the other without the use of powerful magics—something like the Discworld equivalent of applied behavioural economics.

Crucially, the witches are generally cast in a heroic light. They do what is best—what is needed—by the people in their charge. By contrast, the wizards are often depicted as ineffectual agents in the world—collectors of knowledge who pay little mind to those around them.

So, is Pratchett telling us that folk science is simply better—more heroic, more impactful—than formal science, and folk scientists better than formal scientists? As is always the case in life (and in social science) things are slightly more complicated than all that.

The wizards, for all they have their heads in the clouds, do help other characters. People in Ankh-Morpork who have questions about magical objects or effects know to go to the Unseen University, where wizards will do what they can to try make things clearer (even if it sometimes has the opposite of that intended effect). 

On the other hand, the Discworld’s version of folk science is a hair’s breadth away from superstition, particularly nasty varieties of blind faith, and casual cruelty:

Witches didn’t fear much, Miss Tick had said, but what the powerful ones were afraid of, even if they didn’t talk about it, was what they called “going to the bad.” It was too easy to slip into careless little cruelties because you had power and other people hadn’t, too easy to think other people didn’t matter much, too easy to think that ideas like right and wrong didn’t apply to you.

A Hat Full of Sky

In this way, what Pratchett ultimately does is treat with equal seriousness and respect the ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures of science, just as he does with other forms of culture. After all, in one of the only big showdowns between witches and wizards in the series, in Equal Rites, the powerful witch Granny Weatherwax and head of the Unseen University Archchancellor Cutangle appear to be evenly matched.

Paul Kidby, The Faculty
Paul Kidby, ‘The Faculty’

Discworld magic, Roundworld science

Yet there is also the question of what Pratchett could be telling us about science and scientists in general.

If we consider the witches and wizards: they can be petty, jealous, and proud; non-magic users don’t understand their practices; they do a generally bad job communicating their work; and they’re always searching and questioning, sometimes at the expense of other things in their lives. There is a reason all of the wizards and a number of the most powerful witches don’t have families, nor many friends outside of the close circle of the magical community.

I don’t think I need to point out the parallels with the stereotype of the typical Roundworld scientist.

The Discworld is a place where stereotypes, tropes and tales can have power like laws of nature, a place where myth and magic have curiously rational foundations. It has its own logic, but it doesn’t let us rely on received wisdom about what is rational and what is not. In this way, the Discworld invites us to consider our assumptions about what can be a subject for scientific enquiry, who can be a scientist, and how science is done and used.

So, perhaps the biggest divide Pratchett points to isn’t between folk and formal scientists but between people who approach the world scientifically and everyone else. After all, all science begins as folk science, with people curious about the world around them who start looking a little bit closer, thinking about things critically, and writing down the things they see.

3. Lies to children

Ultimately, what is the point of this kind of research into science in storytelling and fantasy? Pratchett, along with co-authors Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, in The Science of Discworld introduces us to the concept of ‘lies to children.’ These are statements which are false but which nevertheless lead us towards a better understanding of how things really are—the classic example of which is teaching children that the atom is like the solar system in miniature, with well-behaved electrons orbiting around a tidy clump of protons and neutrons, when in fact both the atom and the solar system are rather more complicated and interesting than all that.

This idea of lies-to-children is used within the Discworld, like in Adora-Belle Dearheart’s explanation of the Cabinet of Curiosity (Making Money), or Death’s famous quote about fantasy:

“‘YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.’

‘So we can believe the big ones?’

‘YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.’”

Hogfather

But I would argue that a lie-to-children or perhaps a ‘lie-to-readers’ is also what the whole of the Discworld is about. 

Lies-to-children are, after all, all about people doing their best to understand the world around them with the best knowledge they have available to them at the moment. So literature—writing, storytelling, fantasy—is a kind of lie-to-children as well. It helps us to understand the world and people around us while not being a strictly true depiction of that world.

The Discworld especially operates this way, constructed as it is around the way things ‘should’ work rather than how they actually do in our world. This is why we can look at the Discworld to try to get a better understanding of our world. It has been done with gender, education, and belief, and it can be done with science.

Through the funhouse mirror of the Disc, we can start to ask more interesting questions about the way things really are and how we think they should be.

There is plenty more to say about Pratchett and science. For example, future studies could examine what the Discworld can tell us about the communication problem faced by science, the relationships between scientific and other institutions, the influence of different philosophies of science, or could even study the Discworld fan community to see how many are scientists and how it is that they interact with the text.

To close, I return to the original question of this article: how does Pratchett lead us to think about the practice and culture of science?

Well, as science on the Disc comes in the form of magic, perhaps we may gain some final insight from Lords and Ladies, where Pratchett explains:

What is magic?

There is the wizards’ explanation, which comes in two forms, depending on the age of the wizard. 

Older wizards talk about candles, circles, planets, stars, bananas, chants, runes, and the importance of having at least four good meals every day.

Younger wizards, particularly the pale ones who spend most of their time in the High Energy Magic building, chatter at length about fluxes in the morphic nature of the universe, the essentially impermanent quality of even the most apparently rigid time-space framework, the implausibility of reality, and so on: what this means is that they have got hold of something hot and are gabbling the physics as they go along…

Then there is the witches’ explanation, which comes in two forms, depending on the age of the witch.

Older witches hardly put words to it at all, but may suspect in their hearts that the universe really doesn’t know what the hell is going on and consists of a zillion trillion billion possibilities, and could become any one of them if a trained mind rigid with quantum certainty was inserted in the crack and twisted; that, if you really had to make someone’s hat explode, all you needed to do was twist into that universe where a large number of hat molecules all decide at the same time to bounce off in different directions.

Younger witches, on the other hand, talk about it all the time and believe it involves crystals, mystic forces, and dancing about without yer drawers on.

Everyone may be right, all at the same time. That’s the thing about quantum.

Lords and Ladies

It turns out the witches and wizards have a hard time agreeing, though each is working the best they can towards a better understanding of this force which so affects their lives.

Pratchett reminds us of the complexities of doing magic and that it’s done by people who are eminently human.

And so it goes with science on the Roundworld.

Science is about coming up with ever more accurate theories about the world, while still acknowledging that we’re not quite there yet—as in statistics, where we say “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

This would feel familiar, perhaps, on the Disc where “everyone may be right” because “that’s the thing about quantum.”

Or perhaps, if you’ll allow me a bit of editorial license: everyone may be wrong, because that’s the thing about lies-to-children.

What Pratchett does is remind us that life is about recognizing that reality, continuing to work towards a better understanding of the world anyway, and—most importantly—to think more critically about everything.

And what could be more scientific than that?


Mikaela Springsteen is a Jr. Research Scientist at NYU. Her work studies quantification and valuation across human social life, focusing especially on the ways in which numbers create realities—inspired in no small part by the power of the Discworld’s ‘narrativium’. 


Elsewhere:

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