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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.

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Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger


But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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Anthony Burgess discusses Evelyn Waugh:


From Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess (1984).

Brideshead Revisited [1945]

The creation of a television series based on this book (in 1981) was a pretext for the reappraisal of the book itself. The general consensus was that Brideshead Revisited was a sham and a snobbish sham. This referred as much to Waugh’s recension of the book in 1960 (he trimmed off the fat, meaning the gluttony appropriate to deprived wartime but reprehensible in peace) as to the self-indulgent first version. Everything in the novel would seem to be wrong — the implausible invention of a rich English aristocratic family haunted by the God of the Catholics; the Hound of Heaven pursuing the agnostic narrator-hero; the implication that only the upper class can be taken seriously. Charles Ryder, who narrates the story, is seduced by Brideshead Castle and its denizens: but this seduction is merely the prelude to his improbable seduction by God. The eschatological does not sit well with the sybaritic. And so on. And so on.

And yet. And yet. I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears. It is, appropriately, a seductive book. Even the overblown metaphors move and charm. The comedy is superb: Mr Samgrass, Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche are wonderful portraits. And the evocation of pre-war Oxford and Venice, where Ryder “drowns in honey”, is of great brilliance. This is one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter. (Increasingly one finds that the greatest works of literary art are those with the most flaws — Hamlet, for example.) Waugh’s regular Augustan stance, suitable for a comic writer, becomes confused with one romantic as a rose blown by moonlight, but it does not matter. Apart from its literary qualities, it breathes a theological certainty which, if a little too chic, is a world away from the confusions of Greeneland and the squalor of the Irish. It is a novel altogether readable and damnably magical.

Sword of Honour

Evelyn Waugh [1952-61]

This work was not originally planned as a trilogy. Men at Arms came out in 1952, to be followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955. The author considered then that he had said all he had to say about the experiences of his near-autobiographical Guy Crouchback in the Second World War, but he changed his mind later and completed the sequence with Unconditional Surrender in 1961 (published in the United States as The End of the Battle). In 1966 he pruned and revised and issued the trilogy as a single novel in one volume. Most readers prefer to take the items severally and in their unrevised form (compare Brideshead Revisited).

Guy Crouchback is a Catholic gentleman with a castello in Italy and a private income. His wife has left him to indulge in a series of marital adventures and his religion forbids divorce and remarriage. He is lonely, dim, dull, and has rejected the current of life. The coming of war fires him with a crusading zeal, but he is in his late thirties and the fighting machine does not want him. Eventually he joins the Halberdiers, trains, sees action in Dakar, Crete, finally Yugoslavia. Waugh does not push Crouchback too much into the foreground at first. There is a fine galaxy of comic characters — the magnificent Apthorpe, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, the uniformed clubmen, as well as some more lovable than the satirist Waugh was previously able to give us — honest professional soldiers like Colonel Tickeridge, old Mr Crouchback with his firm and simple faith, eventually Uncle Peregrine, a universally dreaded bore who is not boring. But the pathos of Crouchback’s situation is woven strongly into the fine war reportage and the superb comic action. Virginia, his wife, divorced again, rejects his advances. His new bride, the army, is proving a slut. Disillusionment about the true nature of the war grows with the entry of the Russians into the conflict.

The age of the gentleman is disappearing. Men whom Crouchback admires prove treacherous or cowardly. There is a new type of hero emerging, summed up in the failed officer and imposter Trimmer, a former ship’s hairdresser. Trimmer sleeps with Virginia and begets a child on her. Crouchback and she reconsummate their marriage and ensure that a great Catholic family has an heir, though — by an irony appropriate to the new age — this child is really a proletarian by-blow. Crouchback survives the débâcle of Crete, is sickened by the “people’s war” in the Balkans, feels the death-urge, regrets the passing of an old order of chivalry and humanity but, with the stoicism of his kind, makes unconditional surrender to history. He had much in common with the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a tetralogy of the First World War on which Waugh’s work seems to be modelled) — Christopher Tietjens, the incorrupt and traduced gentleman of Christian ideals. What Ford’s book did for one war, Waugh [sic] has done for the other. Sword of Honour is not merely the story of one man’s battles; it is the whole history of the European struggle itself, told with verve, humour, pathos and sharp accuracy.

Extracts from Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987).

The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. They missed out on the suffering, never gave a drop of blood to the cause, and yielded not one rood of land to the Henrican expropriators. (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987), pp. 7-8 of the 1988 Penguin paperback)

The converted Catholics of modern literature seem concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in — naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue. [I disagree: I think he might have enjoyed this in a perverse way.] (pg. 8)

Jack Tollitt became, like Greene and Waugh, a fierce and pedantic Catholic, shame and example to us all. (pg. 53)

The situation presented in Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms applied to potential rank and file as well as to Oxford gentlemen like Guy Crouchback. What could be sickening about that novel, if the nausea were not mitigated by comic irony, is the assumption that a certain segment of British society was, on the grounds that it had an income from land, an Oxbridge education, and friends among the ruling classes, specially qualified to lead those with none of those irrelevant advantages. Kingsley Amis, reviewing Men at Arms, was right to ask what was wrong with Guy Crouchback’s enlisting as a private in the Pioneer Guards if he were so keen to do his duty. Hore-Belisha’s army reforms, which assumed that the gift of leadership was something to be learned by anyone who could learn it, and not a paracletic bestowal on gentlemen graduates, were considered to be Jewish impertinence. (pg. 222)

Evelyn Waugh was right, in his Put Out More Flags, to point to the peculiarly dreamlike nature of that first war winter. It was cosy. There was no shortage of Player’s cigarettes, real cream cakes and whiskey at twelve shillings and sixpence the bottle. There was a blackout, but this on moonless nights was a call to erotic adventure. (pg. 223)

Trevor Wilson, a Malayan Information Officer with whom I had dined in Kota Bharu, had given me some silk shirts to take back to his friend Graham Greene. Greene had an apartment in the Albany, no longer decorated with the miniature whisky bottles which he had been collecting and was to empty into the pages of Our Man in Havana. He was amiable and I signed a copy of Time for a Tiger [which I think is better than anything by Greene] for him. He took me to lunch at the Café Royal and, as it was Friday, we ate fish. Greene made it clear to me that he had achieved much and had reached a plateau where he could afford to take leisurely breath. He had not written the definitive Malayan novel which would match the definitive Vietnamese one entitled The Quiet American, and he did not seem to think I would write it either. I was comic, there was frivolity in my book. He praised the other great Catholic, Evelyn Waugh, and considered The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which had just appeared, a masterpiece. My own Catholicism, being of the cradle variety, was suspect. I was evidently not to be taken seriously as a novelist, rather as a colonial civil servant who had had the luck to find excellent fictional material in the course of his duties. I was an amateur. This was pretty much my own view of myself. I shook hands with Greene, whom I was not to see again till we were both settled on the Côte D’Azur, and went to look for a job. (pg. 418)


Words on Waugh’s World

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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Guida alle Piramidi d'Egitto Alberto SiliottiGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

When Herodotus was young, the pyramids were ancient. That was in the fifth century B.C., when the pyramids were already two millennia old. And if that’s not astonishing enough, consider how long the pyramids had been in the making. Not just the building: the evolution of a civilization that could conceive and complete them. Homo sapiens was not capable of building pyramids when he first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, some modern human races still aren’t. Something special took place in the populations that migrated into the Nile delta and Mesopotamia. It probably centred on something much smaller but much more significant than the pyramids: the invention of writing.

If literacy enhanced reproductive success, it would have altered the genetics of Egypt, raising intelligence, enhancing foresight, improving the ability to delay gratification. All of those were necessary for the construction of those mountains of stone that have awed men for more than four millennia. Shelley’s famous poem about the vanity of megalomaniac monuments was based on the legs and “shattered visage” of an Egyptian statue. But the poem doesn’t apply to the pyramids:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Ozymandias, 1818 )

A lot remains in Egypt beside the pyramids, which number far more than the famous three at Giza. And that’s also home to the mysterious and oneiroleptic Sphinx. But this is really a study of two great civilizations: the ancient Egyptian one and the modern European one that began to study its predecessor and eventually deciphered its forgotten hieroglyphs. The mountainous bulk of the pyramids is founded on minute symbols, because civilization can’t exist without record-keeping and bureaucracy. That demands counting and the pyramids are monuments not just to the pharaohs, but also to mathematics:

In fact the British museum has a famous mathematical papyrus, known as the Rhind Papyrus, which dates back to the Second Intermediate Period [1750-1550 B.C.] and includes a series of arithmetic and geometry problems such as: “A pyramid is 93 cubits and 1/3 high. What is the angle if the height of its face is 140 cubits?” A study of this papyrus has, among other things, made it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with and made practical use of Pythagoras’ theorem, although they never theorized or enunciated it. (“The Construction of a Pyramid”, pg. 41)

Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt by Alberto Siliotti

(English edition)

The Greeks were awed by Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization, but they built on what they inherited from their predecessors. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t just practice maths, but proved it. Proof is a leap into the abstract and the infinite that the Egyptians never seem to have made. Greek sculpture and stonework achieved new freedom too. It wasn’t static and stylized like the sculpture here. But Egyptian sculpture has its own genius and the Greeks never matched the pyramids, only marvelled at them.

And misinterpreted them. The pyramids weren’t simply commemorations of the pharaohs, but stairways to heaven for their souls. Literally so, with the early step pyramids, but later:

As religious thought developed, it was no longer considered necessary to have a celestial highway, for the steep sides of the pyramids, a materialization of the rays of the sun in stone, also permitted the pharaoh to make his heavenly ascent. (“Egypt in the Old Kingdom”, pg. 13)

So pyramids on the outside were vast, awe-inspiring and austere. On the inside, they could contain other aspects of Egyptian genius, like star-strewn ceilings and the delicate and intricate “gold pectorals with amethysts, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and vitreous pastes” buried with Princess Mereret in the pyramid of Sesostris III (Middle Kingdom, 1878-1839 BC). Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is a feast for both the eye and the intellect, a well-designed and well-translated book with one big flaw: there’s no index. So it’s rather like the noseless Sphinx: magnificent but with something important missing.

The pyramids are missing something too: the limestone sheathing that would once have made them blaze in the sun. What must Egypt have been like in her heyday? Or rather: her hey-centuries, because civilization lasted there a very long time. To glimpse that grandeur, open this book.

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Small Arms 1914-45 by Michael E. HaskewSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

Aircraft can be beautiful without being deadly. Guns are sometimes beautiful, always deadly. This is a book about death-machines designed to be used by a single individual: pistols, rifles, machine-guns, flame-throwers, rocket-launchers. It’s part of series called the Essential Weapons Identification Guides and covers every major army, conflict and theatre between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Second. And some minor ones too. There are photographs and drawings of the weapons, technical specifications, occasional cut-away guides and scenes of the weapons in use, like “a rare photograph showing Axis troops manning a Maschinengewehr Solothurn 1930 (MG 30) somewhere on the Eastern Front” (pg. 135).

I found the contrast between the totalitarian and democratic armies interesting. German soldiers during the Second World War look disciplined and highly competent; American soldiers look sloppy and insubordinate. It’s natural soldiers versus decadent conscripts: the German military were out-gunned and out-numbered, never out-classed. The stern, purposeful faces of the “Soviet partisans” on page 135, who are armed with the “super-reliable 71-round-drum-magazine PPSh-41 submachine gun” in Belorussia, 1943, reminded me of this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy had refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine gun, and a model helicopter. At six – a year early, by a special relaxation of the rules – he had joined the Spies, at nine he had been a troop leader. At eleven he had denounced his uncle to the Thought Police after overhearing a conversation which appeared to him to have criminal tendencies. At seventeen he had been a district organizer of the Junior Anti-Sex League. At nineteen he had designed a hand-grenade which had been adopted by the Ministry of Peace and which, at its first trial, had killed thirty-one Eurasian prisoners in one burst. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, ch. 4)

Orwell’s satire was based on an unpleasant reality: as the technology to enhance life advances, so does the technology to destroy it. War is a serious business and this is a book for people who are serious about war and its weaponry.

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Front cover of Shots from the Front by Richard HolmesShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

This book is a well-judged mixture of interesting photographs and enlightening commentary. Richard Holmes is good at pointing out how scenes are staged and spotting when subjects are playing games: “it is clear from his mates’ expressions that the centre soldier, shovelling a huge spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth, is engaged in a wind-up” (pg. 26).

And those soldiers have “just come out of the line”, with the crumpled and mud-stained uniforms to prove it. There was a lot of mud and misery in the First World War, but there was fun too and even fraternization, like the football played between British and German troops on Christmas day in 1914. There are no photographs of that: cameras weren’t everywhere and the photographs wouldn’t have been officially approved anyway.* History is divided into B.C. and A.C. – Before Camera and After Camera – but that doesn’t mean history was always more accurate or truthful when cameras arrived. Sometimes the camera simply meant new ways to lie.

But back then there were things it couldn’t lie about. Some of the faces, expressions and postures in this book look like what they are: a century old. But some could be from much more recent wars. There’s actually a lot of genetic information here, because faces are a record of ancestry and race. So are machines, in another way. Military technology is the application of high intelligence to low extermination. It’s part of what Richard Dawkins calls the extended phenotype and it evolves much faster than the bodies it’s intended to destroy – or simply injure, because a wounded soldier can be more harmful to the enemy than a dead one. But for the most part armies haven’t innovated in their weaponry, merely refined what was being used a century ago: the guns, the grenades, the bombs and the first tanks, military aircraft and gas attacks.

Those last three made the First World War something new, separating it from everything that had gone before. Bullets are like arrows or slingshots and even artillery has ancient parallels: Roman siege-engines threw boulders and fired bolts, for example. But the tank made “its first appearance on the Somme in September 1916” on the British side. The German response was a huge anti-tank rifle, a captured specimen of which is being shown off by grinning New Zealanders on page 148. But the tank wasn’t a wonder-weapon: it was slow and liable to get trapped on bad ground. It was also difficult to communicate with and from: one of the photographs shows a carrier-pigeon being released through “an armoured port in a tank”. Holmes comments that this is a “perfect illustration of the way in which the war often combined ancient and modern” (pg. 91).

Another example is the photograph of a “highly successful mounted charge” in 1917 by the “4th Australian Light Horse Brigade” on page 155. That was in Mesopotamia and although the authenticity of the photograph is disputed, it’s certain that cavalry were used on that front. By then there was aerial combat over the fields of France in sophisticated aircraft. But this book is about soldiers, so the only aircraft shown is an “Australian kite balloon” being inflated on page 103. Aircraft are implicit elsewhere: there are three aerial photographs of “Faffémont farm, near Combles on the Somme”, taken from great height before and after bombardment. You can see trees and buildings in the first photo, taken in April 1916; rubble and matchwood in the second, taken in July; and a landscape of craters in the third, taken in September.

Other photos show the effects of such a bombardment from the ground: dead men and dead horses. But this isn’t a ghoulish book and there aren’t many corpses, partly because photographs of them were thought bad for civilian morale. So there are more photographs here of living men preparing to create corpses: fitting fuses, loading shells, sighting machine-guns, digging tunnels to lay explosives, sitting at the top of poles to spot for artillery. Fig. 100 “shows two Australians preparing jam-tin bombs at Gallipoli”. And they were literally jam-tins, filled with gun-cotton and, in this case, with “sections of barbed wire” to increase their lethality. Holmes notes that the two men are wearing “felt slippers, for this was no place to light a spark” (pg. 133).

Small facts like that help you understand the war better. So do small facts like these, included below a group photograph of some scruffily dressed troops:

That winter the first goatskin coats arrived. They came in a variety of colours, but were often unhelpfully light. Although they attracted both moisture and mud, and were noticeably goaty even when dry, they were very popular in that first chilly winter of trench warfare. (pg. 126)

And on page 237, Holmes notes something that the photographer almost certainly didn’t intend to capture: behind a machine-gun crew, a soldier is “‘chatting’, removing lice, ‘chats’ in soldier’s slang, and their eggs from the seams of his greyback shirt”. This familiar routine was “almost never photographed”. War is a big thing that is affected by small things like felt slippers, goatskin coats and lice. It’s also a bad thing, as the lice suggest, but that’s part of why it’s interesting. This book isn’t intended to be a history of the war and it won’t help you understand the strategists and generals. It’s about ordinary soldiers and their officers, joining up, fighting, sometimes dying, sometimes surviving.

The final section is called “In Parenthesis?”. The words are from the title of David Jones’ “great poem” about the war, but the question mark was put there by Holmes. Jones thought he had stepped outside the “brackets” of the war in 1918. But the 1920s and 1930s were actually between brackets: he hadn’t fought in the war to end all wars. The Second World War was more and worse and its origins can be seen in this book. But the First World War also looks back to the nineteenth century, when the Scottish quartermasters in fig. 45 must have begun their service. One is fat, one looks ferocious. They both have extravagant moustaches. Those men and their moustaches are long gone, but the First World War is still important. This book is a good way to understand what it was like to fight then, but an index would have made it even better.


*Update 31/v/14: In fact, there are photos of that.

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StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)


Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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