We've started putting a tin with a lid on our doorstep, into which the milkman can put our bottle of milk (cultural note: in the UK, it is the custom -- dying out now -- for milk to be delivered daily at or around dawn by an annoyingly cheerful man with an electric van). This is because someone or something had started knocking over our bottles and making free with the milk spilled all over the step.
I was talking about this with my son, and we ran down the list of suspects. The milkman himself? Unlikely. A cat? Well, not unlikely. A dog or fox? Quite possibly (foxes have become a common sight in urban areas*). I mentioned the snails I had noticed making their getaway at the end of trails of milk. Hmm, probably opportunist thieves -- hard to imagine how a snail (or even a gang of snails) would be able to summon the sheer Physics involved in knocking over a bottle of milk.
It then occurred to me that we would probably not think of adding "elves" to the list, and we wondered at what point this useful explanation ceased being available to the householder. Once, I'm sure, if I had stood on the doorstep of my hovel, and shouted "Bloody Elves! They've knocked the milk over again!" the neighbours would have understood, and not called the police. Considering the amount of folklore connected with elf deterrance, this must once have been perceived as a real nuisance. Useful, too: no need to worry about mysterious losses and disappearances, the explanation was always at hand. "Bloody elves have hidden my car keys again!"
The enquiring, scientific mind has done for elves, of course (though, curiously, scientists are still fond of their gremlins). I realised a true scientist would do the obvious thing, and set up a doorstep surveillance system, ideally using movement sensors and infra-red cameras. It wouldn't take long to identify the culprit. I'm sure something adequate could be lashed up for a hundred pounds or so. But wait: a bottle of milk costs 75 pence ... Unless the culprit did turn out to be elves (in which case, the recordings would be quite valuable) the expense would outstrip the benefit by quite a distance ... I immediately lost interest.
But that is why I am not a scientist. I don't care enough about the answer to go to the trouble of doing the work involved in finding out. This struck me very forcibly when trying to identify the species of a butterfly in the garden last summer. It was a "Blue" of course, but which? All I had to do was reach for The Observer's Book of Butterflies, and look it up. One diagnostic characteristic, I read, was the number of spots on the wing. At which point I gave up: partly becase the butterfly had gone, and partly because I simply couldn't be bothered to count the spots on a butterfly's wing.
And then I thought: Once, there was no Observer's Book of Butterflies, with its handy diagnostic tips. Indeed, once, there was no such basic taxonomic knowledge. First, someone had to be bothered to care enough to count the spots on a number of achingly similar butterflys' wings, notice there was a consistent difference, and wonder what that difference signified. And I thought: how much we owe to those few strange, independent-minded people who can be bothered and what a difference they have made to all our lives.
Elves are so much simpler ...
* On the night our daughter was born, I drove our three-year old son across town at about 1:00 a.m. to spend the night with a friend, so I could be at the hospital. I was amazed at the number of foxes that were padding about, criss-crossing the road in my car headlights, checking out the roadside binbags of domestic refuse for snacks. I must have counted twenty in one road. The advent of wheelie-bins has caused an observable decline in their numbers.