I am reminded of a story about the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was visited at his home in Tisvilde, near Copenhagen, by an American scientist. They had just entered Bohr’s study when the American notice a ‘lucky’ horse-shoe nailed above the door, open-side upwards in the correct and approved manner, so that the luck doesn’t run out.
“But surely,” the scientist said, pointing to the horseshoe, “Surely you of all people cannot believe in such superstitious nonsense.”
“Of course not,” Bohr replied, “What do you take me for? How could you think such a thing of me?”
The scientist began mumbling his apologies.
“Although,” Bohr added, “I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”
I was put in mind of this by my daughter, Alice, devout atheist that she is, and member of the British Humanist Association that she is, and admirer of the snaggle-toothed Richard Dawkins that she is, who has just been to her university interviews. She wants to study English.
As an aside, at the time of writing this Alice is reading God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. She intends to use it in her long-term and so-far fruitless mission to convert her younger sister to Secular Humanism. Me, I’m more of a fan of the other Hitchens brother – the one who’s a bit like Jeremy Clarkson, but with fewer laughs. But I digress.
Anyway. Alice was called for interview at her first-choice university. They gave her a room in college, and asked her to stay for three days: one day for her official interviews, and two more days sitting in a common-room with the other thirty-four candidates, waiting, in case anyone else, taking a look at their UCAS forms, fancied interviewing one or more of them.
First day, first interview, and Alice is sitting in an ante-room, waiting to go in. By her side is a bag of books, through which she rifles, looking for last-minute nuggets to help her in the trial to come.
And on the table before her, taken out of her pencil case, is Lucky Pig.
Lucky Pig is a small pink figurine, about the size of my thumbnail, made of some sort of ceramic or hard plastic. He has two dots for eyes and two dots for nostrils, and two sticky-up ears, and he brings her luck.
She had Lucky Pig with her in her GCSCs, and in her AS-levels, and in the ELAT test, the English Literature Aptitude Test she had to sit to get an interview.
Quite unexpectedly the door opens and one of the interviewers comes out, before Alice has had a chance to put away her books or to zip Lucky Pig back into his pencil-case.
“Would you like to come through?” the lady says, and then catches sight of what’s on the table.
“You can bring your pig,” she adds.
Alice told me this afterwards, as we sat in a café in the town, talking about how it went.
“So,” I said, “Let me get this straight: the difference between religious people and secular humanists is that religious people believe in God, whereas secular humanists believe in Lucky Pigs?”
She said that it was not as straightforward as that.
I wonder what Lucky Pig makes of it all.
I wonder what he feels about the task of bringing luck to someone who claims not to believe in it.
He does not say.
Perhaps he has no opinion either way.
Or perhaps he does, but is too polite to express it.
He just sits, enigmatically, on the chest of drawers in Alice’s room.
Placed, by some strange and lucky coincidence, on the offer letter that arrived a week later.