Today I rented bikes and traveled around Oslo with my friends, seeing great museums. I say “bikes” instead of “bike” because they have a wonderful system here: You walk up to a rack of interchangable bicycles, swipe a pre-paid card, and a particular bicycle is unlocked. They have these racks around the city, and you can return your bike to any one of them. At each stop along our tour, I would return the bike I had, and then afterward grab another one to go to the next place.
All the bikes were almost the same – but not quite. You quickly notice subtle differences in the gear shift, how well the brakes work, how inflated the tires are. It’s as though, as the day goes on, your bike is continuously morphing beneath you in subtle ways.
This turned out to be a theme for the day. We visited the Kon-Tiki Museum, dedicated to the series of heroic voyages across the oceans by the great Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl, who has always been a personal hero of mine. By traversing vast distances in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans in boats constructed from materials and methods available to the ancient Egyptians, Heyerdahl had shown that “primitive” peoples were quite capable of sailing across the oceans – and therefore spreading culture between continents.
The entire museum is built around a magnificent exhibit of Heyerdahl’s famous ocean-crossing raft the Kon-Tiki. Except that the Kon-Tiki had been dashed against rocks and broken up into pieces at the end of its historic 1947 voyage. So what we were seeing was the Kon-Tiki but not the Kon-Tiki. Kind of a quasi-Kon-Tiki.
The same thing happened in the next museum we visited – the Fram Museum. The museum building itself was literally built around the great ship the Fram that Amundsen had used to first reach the South Pole. Except that when you go there you learn that there was more than one Fram. A succession of explorers had traveled to far arctic and antarctic regions in the Fram from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, and each time the crew, the route, and the Fram itself were different. So what were seeing in that museum was just a particular version, one of a series.
Imagine if everything worked this way. You come home after a hard day at the office, and you have almost the same furniture, but not quite. That chair had a slightly different cushion, the floor tiles are rotated the other way, the coffee maker had the little knob on the other side. These bicycles and museums had some of that quality. It’s as if the Universe is slightly shifting all the time. There is a thing you can identify, with a name, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.
Imagine if every time you came home from work you had a slightly different family, a different husband or wife. Not radically different, just little things. Slightly different height, different way of thinking. Likes chocolate or doesn’t, snores differently, has that funny little scar on the other shoulder. Today likes your friend who talks too loud, instead of that other one with the red hair.
In other words, they generally manage to provide you with nearly the same model every day, the same kids or husband or wife. But sometimes they get it wrong, because this or that feature was out of stock for the week. So you get the nearest substitute available, hopefully a close match.
Would you notice?