My First Troll

Christie Lynn writes:

We all celebrate those moments in life that mark our growth and development – our first steps, our first words, our first kisses. … Well, you might not know this, but bloggers have key firsts, too. There’s the first post, the first comment, and, last but not least, the first troll.

That’s right, someone has posted a troll comment on an Observations of a Nerd post! That means I’ve become just popular enough to attract the kinds of people that give us the willies at bus stations!

Yeah, you never forget your first troll.  It is a coming-of-age thing in science.

Back before the Internet, some of the senior people around me would get letters in green ink (Or purple.).  Or, occasionally, printed booklets.  That was a mark of distinction.  Us youngsters envied those people: the green ink meant that you had arrived and someone had noticed you.

But my first troll was actually a personal troll.  I hadn’t arrived yet — I was still a grad student, working late at night, up in the University of Texas physics building.  This guy walks in while I’m working away, and in a very diffident and polite manner, starts explaining how you can run car engines with water as a fuel.

He wasn’t at all scary.  (OK, I’d have had a few qualms if I were smaller and female, but he really wasn’t the scary type.)  But he was absolutely convinced and tenacious.   I spent probably an hour attempting to explain chemistry and the conservation of energy.  And that water was the end-product of combustion, so had already released it’s share of energy.   And energy is like a hill: once it rolls down, it doesn’t roll back up by itself.  And we argued about hydrogen, and making it from water, and then burning it to release energy.   And I tried to explain that it takes just as much energy to make the hydrogen as you get by burning it.

It was an odd conversation.  He wasn’t particularly weird or mentally disordered.  He wasn’t dumb: in fact he could argue back fairly well.   He was just wrong, and nothing I could say would seem to cause him to re-think his beliefs.  (I sometimes wonder if he did some re-thinking later, or whether these were fixed ideas, believed with a religious intensity.)

Eventually, he went away.  I can’t remember quite why.  Maybe he’d decided that I was a crank with fixed ideas that couldn’t be changed…   But it was a relief.

Since then, I’ve met quite a few people who can’t/won’t change their mind.  (That category covers almost everyone when they discuss politics.)  But until then, there was a whole section of the human race that I had simply never imagined.