Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon &the-phantom-atlas-by-edward-brooke-hitching Schuster 2016)

I love maps. There’s something magical and mind-transporting about them, but the maps in this book are even more special than usual. They don’t transport your mind elsewhere, they transport your mind nelsewhere – to places that never existed, but might have done.

Or did they once exist? That’s one of the fascinating things. In some cases, phantom islands have been seen by more than one ship and in more than one year. Sometimes reports came in for centuries. Sometimes phantom islands have appeared on Google maps, like Sandy Island or Île de Sable, “northeast of Australia” (pp. 206-7). Possibly first discovered by James Cook in 1774, it was “undiscovered”, as Edward Brooke-Hitching puts it, in 2012, when a group of Australian scientists tried to find it and failed.

But perhaps it really exists and was simply mislocated. Even the most skilful navigators could go astray in the long years before electronics and position-fixing satellites. Or perhaps it lived up to its name and was washed away. That may have happened to more substantial land-masses:

Tracing the cartographic history of the island of Mayda is like tracking a spy through a series of forged identities, although, as it moves about the North Atlantic over the years, adopting a range of names and shifting in shape, it never quite escapes recognition. Mayda is one of the oldest and most enduring of phantoms, stubbornly clinging to the skin of maps for more than five centuries; it was one of the last mythical North Atlantic islands to be expunged. But in a strange twist, it may be that the phantom label is too readily applied. (“Mayda”, pg. 158)

The strange twist, Edward Brook-Hitching goes on to say, is that a ship’s captain south of Greenland “decided to measure the depth” of the supposedly very deep water he was passing over, “perhaps noticing a variation in water colour” (pg. 161). Water that was supposed to be “2400 fathoms” deep turned out to be only “24 fathoms”: there appeared to be a sunken island beneath the ship.

Or was there? Probably not, but islands do indeed come and go, as volcanoes vomit them to life and the sea swallows them again. Mountains come and go too, but over much longer stretches of time, so it’s unlikely that any of the phantom mountains here really existed. The Mountains of the Moon certainly didn’t. They were supposed to be the source of the Nile and appeared prominently on maps when “virtually nothing was known of Africa by Europeans” (pg. 162). Sir Richard Burton tried to reach them in the nineteenth century, during the great age of African exploration, and helped prove they didn’t exist. By then, another African legend was long discredited: the Kingdom of Prester John had melted away into legend.

He was supposedly a Christian king who sent a letter to “Manuel I Komnenon, Emperor of Byzantium” (pg. 194) in the twelfth century, claiming “enormous wealth and power” and descent from the Three Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. The letter proved to be a forgery and historians have long speculated about the identity and motives of the forger. But belief in Prester John took a long time to die and his kingdom appeared on many maps before explorers laid it finally to rest.

Prester John is a legend that most readers will probably have heard of before, like Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and El Dorado. But it’s good to have them collected here in one book with lots of more obscure legends, from “Crocker Land”, the “Isle of Demons” and “Australia’s Inland Sea” to the “Sunken City of Vineta”, “Wak-Wak” and the “Phantom Lands of the Zeno Map”. The maps and drawings are always interesting, often beautiful, and Brooke-Hitching doesn’t stick strictly to geographic phantoms: he also has chapters on the “Sea Monsters of the Carta Marina”, Olaus Magnus’s “hugely influential and imaginative map of Scandinavia” from 1539, and the “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” from 1493.

This book is indeed a cartophile’s delight, detailed in its text and delightful in its imagery, but I would have liked a little more than maps and cartography. The chapter on the Mountains of the Moon or the Kingdom of Prester John could easily have incorporated something about H. Rider-Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Alan Quatermain (1887), just as one of the chapters on the Pacific could easily have incorporated something about H.P. Lovecraft and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). And something about At the Mountains of Madness (1936) could have gone into the chapter on Terra Australis.

As the maps were filled in and the phantoms were exorcised, imaginative writers like Haggard and Lovecraft invented new sources of wonder and mystery. R’lyeh is a phantom land in more senses than one and deserved some mention here. Lovecraft would certainly have delighted in this book and drawn inspiration from it. Its appeal is captured in a story about Pedro Sarmiento, a Spanish explorer taken prisoner by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was questioned about “his maps of the Strait of Magellan” and “one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage.” Sarmiento replied that

…it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. (Introduction, pg. 10)

When we look at maps, we all have islands of our own.

Read Full Post »

british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

Read Full Post »

Malory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford University Press 1977)

I can remember starting to read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Members of the Vulnerable Black Community (1939) and being exhilarated by the simplicity and clarity of her prose. Reading was so easy that it was pleasurable, like taking off a pair of heavy boots on a hot day and walking barefoot on cool grass. But the exhilaration quickly wore off and in the end I felt bored instead. The simplicity became monotonous. I think I finished the book, but I almost gave up.

It was an interesting experience in the power of contrast and I was reminded of it when I came across this edition of the works of Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1410-71). Malory’s prose is also exhilaratingly simple: clear, cold and refreshing as a mountain stream. But unlike Christie’s, the exhilaration of his prose isn’t wearing off, perhaps because there’s something complex in it too:

Soo at Candalmasme many moo grete lordes came thyder for to have wonne the swerd, but there myght none prevaille. And right as Arthur dyd at Christmasse, he dyd at Candelmasse, and pulled oute the swerd easely, wherof the barons were sore agreved and put it of in delay till the hyghe fest of Eester. And as Arthur sped afore so dyd he at Eester. Yet there were some of the grete lordes had indignacion that Arthur shold be kynge, and put it of in a delay till the feest of Pentecoste. Then the Archebisshop of Caunterbury by Merlyns provydence let purveye thenne of the best knyghtes that they myghte gete, and suche knyghtes as Uther Pendragon loved best and moost trusted in his dayes. […] And at the fest of Pentecost alle manner of men assayed to pulle at the swerde that wold assay, but none myght prevaille but Arthur, and he pulled it oute afore all the lordes and comyns that were there. Wherefore alle the comyns cryed at ones, “We wille have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge, and who that holdeth ageynst it, we wille slee hym.” And therwithall they knelyd at ones, both ryche and poure, and cryed Arthur mercy bycause they had delayed hym so longe. And Arthur foryaf hem, and took the swerd bitwene both his handes, and offred it upon the aulter where the Archebisshop was, and so was he made knyghte of the best man that was there. And so anon was the coronacyon made, and ther was he sworne unto his lordes and the comyns for to be a true kyng, to stand with true justyce fro thens forth the dayes of this lyf. (The Tale of King Arthur, Book I, “Merlin”, pg. 10)

The prose is very simple and clear, but you have to concentrate to understand it. This is early modern English, with different and variable spellings, older grammar and meanings, and occasional words that are now lost or obsolete, like horse-mete, iwys, raynke, shafftemonde, and sodde, meaning respectively “food for horses”, “indeed”, “man”, “handsbreadth”, and “boiled”. But Malory is easier to understand than you might expect if you’ve ever tried Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who died almost as Malory was born. The Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) has to be translated for modern readers; Le Morte d’Arthur has merely to be updated. Here’s something from Chaucer:

This Absolon gan wipe his mouth full drye.
Derk was the night as pitch or as the cole;
And at the window out she put hir hole.
And Absolon, him fill no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ers ––
Full savourly –– ere he was aware of this.
Aback he stert, and thought it was amiss,
For well he wist that a woman hath no beerd.
He felt a thing all rough and long y-herd,
And saide, “Fy, alas! What have I to do?”

(“The Miller’s Tale, lines 544-553)

Chaucer and Malory are separated by very little in time, but a lot in language, at least on the printed page. Print can be misleading: Malory’s pronunciation would sound odder to us than his spelling looks. But Chaucer’s humour and earthiness are another big difference between the two. Malory writes about high chivalry and tragic love, not practical jokes and pubic hair. And where Chaucer has stories, Malory has a story: King Arthur and his knights. Few people know Chaucer’s stories any more, but Malory’s story is one of the most famous in the world.

Do the simplicity and clarity of his prose help explain that? I think so. Like the New Testament, Malory’s work had powerful stories that could appeal to everyone. It also had a powerful piece of technology on its side: the printing press. This book has “Caxton’s Preface” to the first printed edition, although “the basis of the text is still the manuscript discovered in 1934 by Dr. W.F. Oakeshott in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College” (introduction, pg. ix). Caxton explained why Malory would still be read six centuries later:

Thenne, to procede forth in thys sayd book, whyche I dyrecte unto alle noble princys, lordes and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen, that desyre to rede or here redde of the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur, sometyme kyng of this noble royalme thenne called Bretaygne, I, William Caxton, symple persone, present thys book folowying whych I have enprysed t’enprynte: and treateth of the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowesse, hardynesse, humanyté, love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse, wyth many wonderful hystoryes and adventures. (“Caxton’s Preface”, pg. xv)

Read Full Post »

Football’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Greaves has put his name on an entertaining book that he didn’t write. And like Iommi, Greaves has earned the right to do that. He entertained millions as a player, then entertained millions more as a broadcaster and football pundit, but he never made a lot of money. I assume he’s not written this book, at least. It would be unusual if a good player from a humble background were also a good writer, because this is an easy and entertaining read.

And Greaves was a good player – very good, in fact. He scored 44 goals in 57 England games, which isn’t far behind Bobby Charlton’s record 49 goals for England. But Charlton took 106 games to score that many. If Greaves had played so long and scored at the same rate, he’d’ve had about 80 goals for England. But he retired early and was never the kind of conformist to win so many caps.

He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 too, but he says here that he agrees with Alf Ramsey’s decision not to play him. Booby Moore and Gordon Banks did play and both are included here. Moore was Greaves’ “best mate in football” and asterisks appear as Greaves says what he thinks of the way Moore was treated by “the f****** FA” after he retired and had to scrabble for money. Even mediocre players can become millionaires today, but Greaves’ generation often fell into poverty after they retired.

In one of the generations before that, Tom Finney was “never ever a full-time professional”, which is why he earned the nickname of “The Preston Plumber”. Finney is #2 in this book, after Stanley Matthews, but the book is written in order of birth, not by how highly Greaves rates them as players. In that case, however, birth-order and Greaves’ rating coincide, because only Matthews makes the “All-Star XI” that Greaves picks at the end. Playing 4-2-4, the XI goes like this:

Lev Yashin; Franz Beckenbauer, John Charles, Bobby Moore (capt.), Duncan Edwards; Alfredo di Stefano, Dave Mackay; Stanley Matthews, Pelé, Maradona, George Best.

I don’t know enough about football to disagree, but Johan Cruyff seems like an obvious omission. He’s #28 in the book proper. And where is Lionel Messi? Nowhere, because this book was first published in 2007, so he doesn’t appear at all. Footballers are like flowers: they flourish briefly, then fade. The big young names here, like Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, are senior players now, approaching the end of their careers, not burning at the zenith as they were in 2007.

And I don’t think there are many generations of footballer to come. This book is about the winners of genetic and environmental lotteries, but new technology means that we’re on the verge of being able to rig the game. When bioengineering and eugenics can produce super-athletes to order, how much value will sporting prowess retain? In crude, one-dimensional sports like athletics, rugby and American football, it’s already possible to inject your way to excellence, which is one reason I’m not interested in those sports.

Football has stayed interesting longer because it’s intellectually and psychologically demanding too. Big muscles and speed don’t automatically translate into dominance on the football pitch. Lightly built men like George Best and Denis Law could excel even in the days of brutal tackles and lenient refereeing. Like everyone else in this book, they must have had special brains, able to process visual information at high speed and perform very some complicated combinatorics. They were born with that ability, I’d say, but they had to polish it by practice. Footballing skill has to become automatic, operating below the level of consciousness, as the German great Gerd Müller explained:

Asked about his gift for goals, Muller said, “I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, or when a defender is going to make a mistake. Something inside me says, ‘Gerd, go this way; Gerd, go that way.’ I don’t know what it is.” (Gerd Muller, #26, pg. 135)

It’s no coincidence that the human beings who play football best are male or that eleven is roughly the size of a hunting-party. Long-distance running and spatial intelligence were once essential for hunting: chasing prey down, throwing spears, firing arrows, and so on. A game of football is like a ritual hunt.

So Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter had an even better name than was apparent as the time. He isn’t one of Greaves’ heroes, but he’s mentioned by George Best as one of the hard men who once tried to kick him out of games. Best mentions Ron “Chopper” Harris and Tommy “Iron” Smith too, then says:

But the hardest of them all was Peter “Cold Eyes” Storey at Arsenal. He seemed a real psycho to me. He used to prowl around the pitch almost grunting as he waited to chop anybody trying to get past him. (George Best, #27, pg. 144)

I hadn’t heard of Storey before, but I’d heard of nearly all of Greaves’ heroes. The exceptions were the Italian Gianni Rivera, AC Milan’s European Footballer of the Year in 1969; the Spaniard Francisco Gento López, Real Madrid’s fleet-footed left-winger for a remarkable 761 league and Cup games, from 1953 to 1971; and the Scot Jim Baxter, a skilful midfielder for Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

Otherwise I already knew the names and was happy to learn more about the players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Zinedine Zidane, from Len Shackleton to Lev Yashin. Most of the men here are still alive, but football is in its dying days. Advancing technology will see to that, but as it does so it will also answer some interesting questions. It won’t be long before we can run computer-models of retired players and see how they might have performed in different eras and using different tactics. Was Pelé really the best of them all? I think he probably was, but that doesn’t mean he would be in history’s strongest team. The whole of a team can sometimes be more than the sum of the parts and managers are obviously crucial too.

Greaves chooses ten managers in the epilogue, then settles on Sir Alex Ferguson to manage his All-Star XI. But managing is something else that will be changed by technology. Will great managers emerge in the future among computer-gamers who have never played professional football? And when virtual football is fully realized, will people lose interest in the real thing? Probably not, because virtual football will derive its power from the real thing and its history. Bioengineering and eugenics will be the “Chopper” Harris of history, carrying out a crunching tackle from behind that ends the world’s greatest and most beautiful sport.

Read Full Post »

Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

Read Full Post »

The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)

I picked up this book expecting to start reading, then get bored, start skimming for interesting bits, and sooner or later give up. I didn’t. I read steadily from beginning to end, feeling educated, enlightened and even enthralled. This is intellectual history at nearly its best, as David Wootton sets out to prove what is, for some, a controversial thesis: that “Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks” (introduction, pg. 1).

He does this in a clever and compelling way: by looking at the language used in science across Europe. If there was indeed a scientific revolution and science was indeed a new phenomenon, we should expect to see this reflected in language. Were old words given new meanings? Did new words and phrases appear for previously inexpressible concepts? They were and they did. “Scientist” itself is a new word, replacing earlier and less suitable words like “naturalist”, “physiologist”, “physician” and “virtuoso”. The word “science” is an example of an old word given a new meaning. In Latin, scientia meant “knowledge” or “field of learning”, from the verb scire, “to know”.

But it didn’t mean a systematic collective attempt to investigate and understand natural phenomena using experiments, hypotheses and sense-enhancing, evidence-gathering instruments. Science in that sense was something new, Wootton claims. He assembles a formidable array of texts and references to back his thesis, which is part of why this book is so enjoyable to read. As Wootton points out, the “Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible simply because it has been so astonishingly successful.” Quotations like this, from the English writer Joseph Glanvill, make it visible again:

And I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but Rumors, verified into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661)

Glanvill’s prescience is remarkable and he’s clearly writing in an age of pre-science or proto-science. He wasn’t just a powerful thinker, but a powerful writer too. So was Galileo and Wootton, who has written a biography of the great Italian, conveys his genius very clearly in The Invention of Science. You can feel some of the exhilaration of the intellectual adventure Galileo and other early scientists embarked on. They were like buccaneers sailing out from Aristotle’s Mediterranean into the huge Atlantic, with a new world before them.

Wootton also emphasizes the importance of Galileo’s original speciality:

The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers. The philosophers controlled the university curriculum (as a university teacher, Galileo never taught anything but Ptolemaic astronomy), but the mathematicians had the patronage of princes and merchants, of soldiers and sailors. They won that patronage because they offered new applications of mathematics to the world. (Part 2, “Seeing is Believing”, ch. 5, “The Mathematization of the World”, pg. 209)

But there’s something unexpected in this part of the book: he describes “double-entry bookkeeping” as part of that mathematical revolt: “the process of abstraction it teaches is an essential precondition for the new science” (pg. 164).

He also has very interesting things to say about the influence of legal tradition on the development of science:

Just as facts moved out of the courtroom and into the laboratory, so evidence made the same move at around the same time; and, as part of the same process of constructing a new type of knowledge, morality moved from theology into the sciences. When it comes to evidence, the new science was not inventing new concepts, but re-cycling existing ones. (Part 3, “Making Knowledge”, ch. 11, “Evidence and Judgment”, pg. 412)

Science was something new, but it wasn’t an ideology ex nihilo. That isn’t possible for mere mortals and Wootton is very good at explaining what was adapted, what was overturned and what was lost. Chapter 13 is, appropriately enough, devoted to “The Disenchantment of the World”; the next chapter describes how “Knowledge is Power”. That’s in Part 3, “Birth of the Modern”, and Wootton wants this to be a modern book, rather than a post-modern one. He believes in objective reality and that science makes genuine discoveries about that reality.

But he fails to take account of some modern scientific discoveries. The Invention of Science is a work of history, sociology, philology, and philosophy. It doesn’t discuss human biology or the possibility that one of the essential preconditions of science was genetic. Modern science arose in a particular place, north-western Europe, at a particular time. Why? The Invention of Science doesn’t, in the deepest sense, address that question. It doesn’t talk about intelligence and psychology or the genetics that underlie them. It’s a work of history, not of bio-history or historical genetics.

In 2016, that isn’t a great failing. History of science hasn’t yet been revolutionized by science. But I would like to see the thesis of this book re-visited in the light of books like Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007), which argues that the Industrial Revolution in England had to be preceded by a eugenic revolution in which the intelligent and prudent outbred the stupid and feckless. The Invention of Science makes it clear that Galileo was both a genius and an intellectual adventurer. But why were there so many others like him in north-western Europe?

I hope that historians of science will soon be addressing that question using genetics and evolutionary theory. David Wootton can’t be criticized for not doing so here, because bio-history is very new and still controversial. And he may believe, like many of the post-modernists whom he criticizes, in the psychic unity of mankind. The Invention of Science has other and less excusable flaws, however. One of them is obvious even before you open its pages. Like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid Madge Allsop, it is dressed in beige. The hardback I read does not have an inviting front cover and Wootton could surely have found something equally relevant, but more interesting and colourful.

After opening the book, you may find another flaw. Wootton’s prose is not painful, but it isn’t as graceful or pleasant to read as it could have been. This is both a pity and a puzzle, because he is very well-read in more languages than one: “We take facts so much for granted that it comes as a shock to learn that they are a modern invention. There is no word in classical Greek or Latin for a fact, and no way of translating the sentences above from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] into those languages.” (Part 3, “Facts”, pg. 254)

He certainly knows what good prose looks like, because he quotes a lot of it. But his own lacks the kind of vigour and wit you can see in the words of, say, Walter Charleton:

[I]t hath been affirmed by many of the Ancients, and questioned by very few of the Moderns, that a Drum bottomed with a Woolfs skin, and headed with a Sheeps, will yeeld scarce any sound at all; nay more, that a Wolfs skin will in short time prey upon and consume a Sheeps skin, if they be layed neer together. And against this we need no other Defense than a downright appeal to Experience, whether both those Traditions deserve not to be listed among Popular Errors; and as well the Promoters, as Authors of them to be exiled the society of Philosophers: these as Traitors to truth by the plotting of manifest falsehoods; those as Ideots, for beleiving and admiring such fopperies, as smell of nothing but the Fable; and lye open to the contradiction of an easy and cheap Experiment. (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654)

The Invention of Science is also too long: its message often rambles home rather than rams. If Wootton suffers from cacoethes scribendi, an insatiable itch to write, then I feel an itch to edit what he wrote. It’s good to pick up a solid book on a solid subject; it would be even better if everything in the book deserved to be there.

But if the book weren’t so good in some ways, I wouldn’t be complaining that it was less than good in others. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished it at all and I wouldn’t be heartily recommending it to anyone interested in science, history or linguistics. But I did and I am. The Invention of Science is an important book and an enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it and look forward to reading it again.

Read Full Post »

The Million Death Quake by Roger MussonThe Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth’s Deadliest Natural Disaster, Roger Musson (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

“As solid as the earth,” we say. That’s why even mild earthquakes are often frightening and always memorable. Suddenly you can’t rely on the earth any more: it’s not rock-steady, it’s dancing. And it might be about to dance you to death.

But Robert Musson, author of this excellent guide to the history and future of seismology, points out that even in a big earthquake you’ll usually be safe in the open away from buildings. The problem is that few people spend much time like that. Cities are getting bigger and more crowded, which is why he suggests that one day an earthquake could kill a million people or more. Tehran is one candidate. So is this:

The case of Istanbul is unnerving for another reason. The North Anatolian Fault, the great strike-slip fault that starts in eastern Turkey and dies out in the middle of the Aegean, has an interesting property. Earthquakes along it tend to occur in sequences, starting in the east and moving progressively west. Each quake, as it occurs, throws more stress on the next section of fault to the west, which then fails a few years to a decade or so later. it’s like a series of dominoes toppling. […] The current sequence began with a 7.8 magnitude event near Erzincan, at the eastern end of the fault line, in 1939. This was followed by quakes progressively further west in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1957 and 1967. Then, after a lull, the next most westerly stretch of fault broke in 1999 with the Izmit earthquake. The next stretch of fault to the west goes straight through the Sea of Marmara, just south of Istanbul. This is the next domino to fall, and it could happen at any time. (ch. 12, “Stay Safe”, pp. 233-4)

Or there could be another lull. That is one of the interesting things about earthquakes: their unpredictability. The subtitle of this book is misleading, because there is no reliable science of prediction for earthquakes. Seismologists can say in great detail why and how they occur, but they can’t say where or when or what size. We are far better at predicting the behaviour of the sky above our heads than we are at predicting the behaviour of the earth beneath our feet. Meteorologists are refining and extending their forecasts further all the time. Astronomers have been accurately predicting eclipses and planetary orbits for thousands of years.

Seismologists would like to make their discipline predictive rather than reactive, but it’s proving very difficult. Masson discusses one team of Greek seismologists who claimed to be able to predict quakes using “seismic electrical signals, or SES for short” released by “rocks once they are stressed beyond a certain degree” (ch. 8, “Next Year’s Earthquakes”, pg. 172). But the team, led by Professor Panayotis Varotsos, made their predictions by sending telegrams to each other rather than informing an official body. When the earthquake occurred, they would produce the telegram and its date-stamp: “The question that was whispered in the corridors at conference sessions was this: How many telegrams were quietly burned when the prediction failed?”

Then a “moderate earthquake” hit Athens in 1999 and although the team claimed to have predicted it, they hadn’t said so in public. Apparently stung by the criticism that followed, Professor Varotsos issued a public prediction of a larger earthquake on its way in central Greece. But it never happened and the team were no longer taken seriously.

It’s not difficult to understand why earthquake prediction is so difficult: rocks aren’t transparent and gathering data from the depths of the earth is much harder than gathering data from the sky. Seismologists would be delighted if they could realize the suggestion made by Arthur C. Clarke in his short story “The Fires Within” (1949):

Sonar, as you will know, is the acoustic equivalent of radar, and although less familiar is older by some millions of years, since bats use it very effectively to detect insects and obstacles at night. Professor Hancock intended to send high-powered supersonic pulses into the ground and to build up from the returning echoes an image of what lay beneath. The picture would be displayed on a cathode ray tube and the whole system would be exactly analogous to the type of radar used in aircraft to show the ground through cloud.

Nearly seventy years on, we’re still waiting for a geoscope like that. Seismology is still a hobbled science and earthquakes are still mysterious and frightening things. As Sherlock Holmes says in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (1892): “Data! data! Data! … I can’t make bricks without clay.” But seismologists have done a lot with the limited data they’ve got, as you’ll learn here. Writing clearly and colloquially, Masson traces the history of mankind’s attempts to understand earthquakes, describes their effects on history, discusses related phenomena like volcanoes and tsunamis, and explains why seismologists don’t use the “Richter scale”. The Million Death Quake has a hyperbolic title and a misleading subtitle, but it’s one of the best popular science books I’ve come across.

Read Full Post »

Puskás by György SzöllősiPuskás: Madrid, the Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of the World’s Greatest Goalscorer, György Szöllősi, foreword by Sir Alex Ferguson (Freight Books 2015)

When an earthquake or large meteor strikes the earth or moon, it can ring like a bell for a long time, as shock waves bounce to and fro, slowly dying out. That can happen in culture too: some events are like earthquakes that shake a formerly stable landscape. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is one of those cultural earthquakes. There was a riot at its début in Paris in 1913.

Ferenc Puskás (1927-2006) (pronounced roughly FEHR-ents PUSH-kaash) was the orchestrator of another Slavic earthquake, forty years later and about 150 miles north-west, in London. Except that Puskás wasn’t Slavic and didn’t speak a Slavic language. Hungarians and their language aren’t Eastern European in any conventional sense. Instead, they invaded Eastern Europe and overturned a Slavic tradition. Puskás and his Magyar team-mates invaded and overturned another tradition when they beat England 3-6 at Wembley Stadium in November 1953.

How could that happen? As György Szöllősi says viâ his translators Andrew Clark and Matthew Watson-Broughton, it was generally accepted at the time that “England were invincible on their own turf” (“The Magical Magyars”, pg. 60). At the return match in Budapest in May 1954 Hungary did it again. Only more so: this time the score was 7-1. Tom Finney, himself one of the all-time greats, said that it was like “cart horses playing race-horses” (pg. 61). Puskás scored twice in both games and one of those goals, created by a pull-back that sent Billy Wright sliding off the pitch at Wembley, is one of the most famous of all time.

If his career had ended after he came off the pitch in Budapest, Puskás would have sealed his place in footballing history. And it did soon look as though his career might be over. Stalin died in 1953 and increasing unrest in Hungary led to full rebellion in 1956. Bullet-holes in the parliament buildings in Budapest still show what happened next: the rebellion was brutally crushed. Puskás was one of more than 200,000 Hungarians who went into exile.

He wasn’t able to return for decades and his fellow countrymen could only whisper about the remarkable feats he performed when he managed to find a new club. It was called Real Madrid and Puskás joined Alfredo Di Stéfano to become one of its greatest ever players: he scored seven goals in two European Cup Finals for the club. His first batch was four, in the 7-3 crushing of Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960. Then he scored a hat-trick against Benfica in 1962.

Unfortunately, Benfica scored five goals and no-one else scored for Real. Even the greats don’t always win, but that hat-trick proves that Puskás could do remarkable things even in defeat. His statistics are astonishing, reminiscent of Don Bradman’s in cricket: 511 goals in 533 Hungarian and Spanish top-flight games and 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary. The former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is one of those who are still awed by Puskás: Ferguson writes the foreword to this book and says he “dodged school” in 1953 to watch Hungary play England at Wembley. FIFA now have a Puskás award for goal of the year and there’s a photo of Cristiano Ronaldo holding up a red number 10 shirt bearing the name Puskás.

Ronaldo is another great, but his challenges off the pitch are remembering where he left the keys for his Lamborghini and deciding which ear to put his diamond stud in. Puskás lived through the Second World War, then saw a team-mate, Sándor Szůcs, hanged for trying to leave Hungary, then came under sentence of death himself when he went into exile after the Hungarian Uprising. He didn’t wear diamonds, he was a diamond in the Aranycsapat, the Golden Team that was the pride of Hungary before Puskás and team-mates like Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis became unpersons as traitors to the communist state.

This biography is short and easy to read, but it would have been improved by an index and contents page. Puskás’s career would have been improved by a World Cup winner’s medal and György Szöllősi describes why he didn’t get one. He also describes what Puskás’s real ancestry was and why he censored his birthdate. Hungary is an interesting country in lots of ways and it’s still making more of a mark in Europe than its size and population might lead you to expect. Puskás put his mark on European history in ninety minutes at Wembley in 1953, but he did much more than that and this book tells you how.

Read Full Post »

You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

Read Full Post »

Sextant by David Barrie
Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

When a triumphant emperor rode through Rome, he’s said to have had a slave at his shoulder whispering: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This book has a related message for its readers: “Remember, you’re comfortable.” The world has become much smaller and much safer since the days when a sextant was an essential part of every ship’s equipment.

Or has seemed to become smaller and safer, anyway. David Barrie reminded himself of the underlying reality by sailing across the Atlantic in 1973 with two companions in a 35-ft sloop called Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for “Sea-Queen”). The voyage was powered by the wind and guided by the heavens in the old-fashioned way:

Of course I was intellectually aware of the size of the ocean when we set out from Halifax [on the coast of Nova Scotia], but spending twenty-four days crossing it under sail gave its dimensions a very different and truly sublime reality. The long night watches looking up at the stars in the black immensity of space were a lesson in humility and the experience of a gale in mid-Atlantic left me wondering what it must be like to encounter a real storm. People often talk idiotically about “conquering mountains” or “defying the sea”, but there is no real contest. I was left with an overwhelming sense of nature’s vast scale and complete indifference, and this had a strangely calming effect. We come and we go, the earth too was born and will eventually die, but the universe in all its chilly splendour abides. (ch. 18, “Two Landfalls”, pp. 289-90)

That’s at the end of the book. Descriptions of Barrie’s voyage in the 1970s open almost every previous chapter and set the context first for a history of celestial navigation and then for the stories of the men who used it. Their expertise with sextants and other instruments won them fame, but not always fortune. Nor a quiet and dignified death. Captain Cook charted the Pacific, then was hacked to death on Hawaii in 1779. Joshua Slocum made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895-6, then “disappeared at sea after setting sail from Martha’s Vineyard on a single-handed voyage to the Amazon in November 1908” (ch. 15, “Slocum Circles the World”, pg. 255).

George Bass, after whom the strait separating Tasmania from Australia is named, disappeared too, perhaps at sea, perhaps into the slave-mines of a Spanish colony in South America: “Whatever the truth, Bass was never heard of again.” (ch. 12, “Flinders – Coasting Australia”, pg. 176) That was in 1803. I hadn’t heard of Bass before or of his even more adventurous companion Matthew Flinders. And I didn’t know that Vancouver in Canada was named after the explorer George Vancouver. I’m glad to have changed that.

I had heard of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, but I’ understood the scale of his achievements better by reading this book. He had witnessed Cook’s death on Hawaii, which was why he didn’t want to risk landing on any of the islands of the Tongan archipelago after he was set adrift in an open boat by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. Instead, equipped with only a sextant and compass, Bligh set sail for “Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, some 3,600 nautical miles away” (ch. 4, “Bligh’s Boat Journey”, pg. 41). He needed both skill and “bloody-minded determination” to succeed.

He also needed intelligence. That combination explains why this book about mapping the world’s oceans is dominated by men from a small corner of that world: north-western Europe. Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Bass were English; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Perouse, were French. There’s an “x” in sextant and an “XY” in the human beings who invented and used the instrument. Galileo was one of them: his discovery of the Jovian moons provided a way to determine longitude.

Latitude was relatively easy: you can obtain that by determining the height of, say, Polaris at the north celestial pole. If Polaris is directly overhead, you’re at the north pole. If it’s on the horizon, you’re on the equator. If you can’t see Polaris at all, you’re in the southern hemisphere. Or it’s daylight or a cloudy night. Navigation in past centuries was difficult and dangerous. When Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell got it wrong “on the night of 22 October 1707”, he lost four ships and 2,000 men on the “reef-strewn Isles of Scilly” (ch. 5, “Anson’s Ordeals”, pg. 54). Barrie adds that “Shovell himself was washed ashore and reportedly murdered by a local woman who fancied the ring on his finger.”

Even today, with GPS, radar and secure communications, the sea is still claiming lives. This book reminds you of the days when it claimed many more and was a much more frightening place to venture. Those days may return: modern electronics and satellite technology are a fragile system and Barrie describes at the end of the book how some sailors deliberately abandon it, training themselves to rely on their own eyes and brains, not on the pressing of buttons. This book is about balls in more senses than one. The Polynesians who made astonishing voyages over the Pacific didn’t use only their eyes:

When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide. (ch. 17, “‘These are men’”, pg. 283)

That’s a reminder of the male biochemistry underlying the courage required to face the sea and the spatial skills that had to accompany it. There are lots of balls elsewhere: the terrestrial globe and the globes of the sun, moon, planets and stars that helped men navigate their way around it. Sextant is a fascinating read about some formidable men and their often frightening voyages. They helped shape the modern world and you can’t understand the modern world without knowing something about them. This book is an excellent place to start.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »