December 09, 2004

Alfalfa: The Naked Truth

Party at a friend's place. Several new faces there; I met most as the party went on. One was, I found at one point, surrounded by a small group. As I strolled up to listen to what was going on, I heard him asking, and this is verbatim: "Which is the only word in the English language that follows the pattern 'x-y-z, x-y-z', repeated till infinity?"

Ignorance quickly got the better of me. Reluctantly, I had to admit that I had no answer. The rest of the group, more persevering, muttered on a bit. But they too gave up. Our questioner, pleased to score a triumph of the intellect over us, grinned triumphantly as he announced the answer.

"Alfalfa," he said. Which is produced, he said, by repeating "a-l-f" till infinity. Though, I thought, it works better if you chop after the third "a". Who wants to be saying "alfalfalfalfalfalfalfalfa..." till the cows come home?

But now I'm puzzled as well as ignorant. "So what?" I ask hesitantly. At least to me, "alfalfa" doesn't appear to have "a-l-f" repeated till infinity, it's only seven letters long. Besides, so what?

"This is not my research", he says, curled upper lip firmly in place, "it's Isaac Asimov's!" This, it seems, is the knockout punch. How can I possibly argue with the fruits of Isaac Asimov's research?

I banish from my mind a fleeting image of Asimov in a dingy lab, spending years researching the patterns in "alfalfa", then revealing the secret to an adoring world: that it "follows the pattern 'x-y-z, x-y-z', repeated till infinity." Not quite Nobel prize winning research. But what do I know?

The rest of the party went by in a daze, and not just because of my drink. With research on my mind, I remembered a professor I had read about only days before. At an Illinois university in the US of A, the man spent years and great sums of money investigating one of Science's most Remarkable Phenomena, a Field of Fundamental Importance to the Survival of Mankind itself.

Nude beaches.

I am not making this up.

You will agree: this was difficult, pioneering research. Nevertheless, he stuck to it manfully, with passion. He spent long periods on said beaches, observing people there, noting the shape they were in, particularly the feminine shapes. Months and years went by in this endeavour to further the Frontiers of Human Knowledge -- or is that Fronts? -- but he got nowhere near finished. He needed many more long hours to study many more nudes at many more beaches.

Aren't you glad that someone put in the effort to conduct this research? Well, lots of people were as glad. Including that university in Illinois and the agencies that funded his work. Oh, they were thrilled when this man's field of study was revealed, when they found out for the first time what their money had been used for. Overcome with joy, they got the professor, now sporting a healthy tan and bulging eyes, fired. Last heard of, he was heading for the beach, determined to serve Science some more.

Nude beaches and "x-y-z." I spent the entire party batting these about in my mind. Eventually, inspired by these noble research efforts, but also by my vodka and karela juice, I decided to make my own contribution.

The group is still gathered around the Asimov Alfalfa man, still hanging on his every research-laden word. By now, he has moved on to other weighty Questions of our Times. I fight my way to the front. Summoning up all my courage, and bolstered to no small extent by alcohol, I ask, parentheses included: "What about 'tutu' (meaning a ballerina's skirt)? Doesn't that also repeat till infinity except that it is chopped short (the word, not the skirt and certainly not the alfalfa)?"

I am proud of myself. Isn't everyone looking at me with new respect?

Alfalfa man brings me quickly down to earth. In tones fairly dripping with contempt, he says: "'Tutu' is only 'x-y, x-y' repeated till infinity. There's nothing worth researching there!"

Tail between shaking legs, I slink away. I feel like I've been stripped naked. Research will do that to you. Or nude beaches. Gotta remember not to step in the alfalfa.

1 comment:

Sunil said...


But since you did touch on the topic of research, you just might want to read this excellent article on india together, talking about the falling standards of science education and research in India.