Eles, April 14th 2000


The first page from my MPhil thesis, and prob­ably the only page which wouldn’t be re-written from scratch if I were to go back to it.

Contrary to the pro­verb, it’s never darkest before the dawn. As I stood look­ing out to the east­ern hori­zon, the few clouds in the sky shone in bril­liant sil­ver against a metal­lic cobalt vault. Behind me the sky slowly yiel­ded from mid­night blue to lighter hues. Today, as for every other day for the past couple of mil­len­nia, there was quite a crowd for the day’s open­ing event. Scores of people were wait­ing for the sun to rise. They all wanted a good view of the sun­rise and had been sit­ting on the slopes of the hill­sides to ensure an unob­scured view. The sun rose, ini­tially peek­ing over the hori­zon like the tini­est gem of fire. The first rays of light shot over land into the hearts of the watch­ers, bring­ing with it a prom­ise of rebirth and renewal. As long as we had the sun we too would be reborn each day. Like the sun we would return from the sleep of the night and we would never truly die.

At least this is one explan­a­tion of the morning’s events. I was unable to ask my fel­low spec­tat­ors if this was a cor­rect inter­pret­a­tion, as they had all been bur­ied for centuries.

The Frog and the Ant


Socrates is repor­ted to have said that the Greeks were scattered around the Mediterranean like frogs or ants around a pond. I have a pond, but no apoi­kiai or emporia. I do how­ever have frogs and ants.

This is a test of YouTube and the movie func­tion on my cheap but usable cam­era. It’s a brief record of a frog and an ant arran­ging to meet for lunch. If you watch care­fully, you’ll see that no ants were harmed dur­ing the film­ing of this clip. At least not phys­ic­ally, though the exper­i­ence may have left psy­cho­lo­gical scars.

The insect might be hard to spot, so I’ve drawn a dia­gram. Yes I am that sad.

Frog Insect Lunch Diagram

Is being a good Historian in the genes?


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Historian in jeans
Historian (in jeans no less). Photo by Gerard Van der Leun.

One of the prob­lems in being a slow thinker and slow in com­ment­ing is that often you find someone has already said what I’m think­ing, and said it bet­ter than I would.

An example is a debate fol­low­ing the recent History Carnival at Air Pollution. Our host Andrew Israel Ross opened the debate.

Last night I was in the middle of a con­ver­sa­tion that I think hap­pens quite fre­quently amongst grad stu­dents in the human­it­ies, at least those informed by his­tory. Do mem­bers of oppressed groups today have spe­cial access on the past of those groups? In other words, do gay people or Black people, have a spe­cial claim to an under­stand­ing of the gay or Black past? My answer: yeah, I’m afraid so. And I say this even though one of my favor­ite queer the­or­ists hap­pens to be a mar­ried woman.

This has been chal­lenged by ADM at Blogenspiel. ADM’s pos­i­tion is:

[I]t’s pretty easy to be a medi­ev­al­ist — and I think it’s easier the earlier one goes … but we really are in ‘the past is a dif­fer­ent coun­try’ land. We don’t have to worry about identi­fy­ing with the people we study in the way Ross dis­cusses. We try to under­stand them and make them more under­stand­able to oth­ers, but that’s dif­fer­ent. Because Ross is wrong about this. In fact, I would argue that what he sees as being bet­ter insight is just a faster way to bad history.

Who’s right? I’ll don my weasel suit and say they both are, but you’re wel­come to dis­agree in the com­ment box below or on either of their sites.

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Archaeology Image Bank


I’ve been sat on this for a while and when the launch is finally announced I for­get to men­tion it.

as1_stonehenge.jpgThe HEA’s Archaeology Image Bank is now open. It will even­tu­ally be an extens­ive col­lec­tion of annot­ated images for use in teach­ing and research. My pho­tos should also be avail­able from Flickr under a CC BY-SA licence which is slightly more open than HEA’s terms. I have a few up there includ­ing this one of Stonehenge, which is lis­ted at num­ber three in the down­load chart. I’m not ask­ing people to down­load it the hi-res ver­sion purely to boost my ego. You should down­load it because it’s a use­ful photo. And then down­load a second copy tomor­row to boost my ego.
I appre­ci­ate the pho­tos could be used by unpleas­ant people, but the sort of people I wouldn’t want using the pho­tos are the sort of people who wouldn’t ask me or tell me about using them any­way. All a more strin­gent licence would do is deter people who might oth­er­wise do inter­est­ing and ima­gin­at­ive stuff with them. There is the loss of com­mer­ical gain, but I don’t think I’m los­ing a sub­stan­tial income by mak­ing the pho­tos usable for free. You may call it pess­im­istic, but I think real­istic is a bet­ter description.

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction by Stillman Drake


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Galileo VSIBlackwells in Oxford has done some­thing which is either very good or very evil. They’ve put up a wall of Very Short Introductions, along with a 3 for 2 offer. They’re handy for some­thing to read on the train and con­sid­er­ably more sub­stan­tial and dur­able than a magazine which I can skim through in a half hour. I can forsee me spend­ing a lot of money. I’ve made an effort to limit myself to just three a week, so this week I bought Ancient Egyptian Myth, Russell and Galileo.

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction, isn’t a new book as such but an older book re-titled for the Very Short Introduction series. I tend to me more wary of these titles. Roman Britain was good for its time, but its time was 1984 and that VSI is a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. This book by Stillman Drake, who I hadn’t heard of, was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in 1996 and hasn’t dated as far as I can tell. Given that I didn’t recog­nise the name of one of the major schol­ars on a pivotal event in the History of Science you should be able to work out I’m not exactly a reli­able source as to how dated it is.

Like the best VSIs, rather than present everything about a topic ever in a few words, it con­cen­trates on a very spe­cific focus. For this book the aim is to cla­rify why Galileo was brought to trial. Everyhting else he did — observing Jupiter’s moons, which gets little space in the book, or his the­ory of Relativity gets men­tioned, but only as far as it advances the main point. This cent­ral point is fas­cin­at­ing. For Drake Galileo’s trial was not about Science versus Religion, but rather Science versus Philosophy. Drake paints a por­trait of a devout Catholic who was not at odds with the church, but with Aristotle.

There’s a men­tion of ‘ancient sci­ence’ in the tag line at the top of this page. I’m not entirely happy about that because I’m not con­vinced there was such a thing, really, as Ancient Science. There are ele­ments of know­ledge in the past which look like they’re sci­entific, but they’re embed­ded in a very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing. For ancient philo­soph­ers reason was the key to know­ledge rather than exper­i­ence. This causes a prob­lem if you work out a way to quantify experience.

Galileo’s achieve­ment was in doing this, so he could meas­ure the period of a pen­du­lum or, more fam­ously, observe the fall of weights. According to Aristotle heavy things fell faster than light things. Galileo showed that this was true, but by noth­ing like the amount Aristotlean phys­ics pre­dicted and the dif­fer­ence could be explained by exper­i­mental error.

At the same time as he was annoy­ing philo­soph­ers, he also star­ted to annoy some sci­ent­ists in the church. Drake shows how Galileo claimed pre­ced­ence for the dis­cov­ery sun­spots over Father Christopher Scheiner who had sent him work on the topic. Eventually when prom­in­ent philo­soph­ers decided to move against Galileo they had allies in the church. Galileo had expec­ted to the church to remain neut­ral on issues that could be settled without faith. However the com­bin­a­tion of per­son­al­ity clashes, arcane pro­ced­ure and the need for the Roman Inquisition to avoid los­ing face led to Galileo’s house arrest.

What is inter­est­ing about the book is the way that it puts per­son­al­it­ies in a his­tor­ical con­text. How much his­tory is affected by the actions of indi­vidu­als? In this case, if Galileo had died as a child of plague, then were Science and Religion irre­voc­ably on a col­li­sion course? Would we be talk­ing about someone else defy­ing the church? Drake leaves open the pos­sib­il­ity that this was also an issue of the people involved. Paradoxically if the church had lim­ited itself to say­ing how to go to heaven, rather than how the heav­ens go, there may have been no need to decide between sci­ence and reli­gion as a source of truth.

If you are very much a fol­lower of the History of Science then this book will tell you littl eyou didn’t already know, and its brief nature will leave you want­ing more facts, dis­cus­sion and ref­er­ences to expand on Drake’s hypo­thesis. If on the other hand you want some­thing that will chal­lenge pre­con­cep­tions about the inev­it­able clash of epi­stem­o­lo­gies then this book is an enter­tain­ing and well-written diversion.

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites


UNESCO has added some more names to their list of world her­it­age sites. I seem to have a dif­fer­ent list to the one their web­site has, so I’ll go with theirs. Interesting sites on the list include.

Finally and most import­antly Tequila is now lis­ted as a world treas­ure. “It reflects both the fusion of pre-Hispanic tra­di­tions of fer­ment­ing mes­cal juice with the European dis­til­la­tion pro­cesses and of local tech­no­lo­gies and those impor­ted from Europe and the U.S.A.


Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” by Valerie Shrimplin


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Valerie Shrimplin’s Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” is a dif­fi­cult book to write about. I like it, but it tackles such a var­ied range of sources that it raises a lot of intriguing ques­tions. Certainly more than can be covered in one blog post so, for now, I’ll leave them for a later post. For now I’ll start from the pop­u­lar, if incor­rect, view of the arrival of Copernicanism.

Sometime in the 16th cen­tury Nicolaus Copernicus dis­covered that con­trary to the teach­ings of the church, the Earth went round the Sun. Fearing con­dem­na­tion by the Church he refused to pub­lish his the­ory until his death. The next day Galileo buys a copy of the book and is inspired to dis­cover Jupiter’s moons with a tele­scope. This proves Copernicus’s the­ory and he tells the world about it. In the Vatican all hell breaks loose, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing. The Inquistion is sent to deal with Galileo, much to his sur­prise, and so the church becomes an army of dark­ness in the War for Enlightenment.

The above is non­sense, but per­haps a fair ste­reo­type of the Science vs. Religion battle that con­tin­ues to this day. So what would it mean if there was a depic­tion of a helio­centric uni­verse in the Sistene chapel dat­ing from the six­teenth cen­tury in full view of everyone?

The Last Judgement
The Last Judgement: Image from Wikipedia.

In the midst of all assuredly dwells the Sun. For in this most beau­ti­ful who would place this luminary in any other or bet­ter pos­i­tion from which he can illu­min­ate the whole at once? Indeed, some rightly call Him the Light of the World, oth­ers, the Mind or ruler of the Universe: Trismegistus names him the vis­ible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the all-seeing. So indeed the Sun remains, as if in his kingly domin­ion, gov­ern­ing the fam­ily of Heavenly bod­ies which circles around him.

Shrimplin begins her book with this quote which could be read as a descrip­tion of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. It’s not. It’s from De revolu­tionibus orbium coe­les­tium. Ok, so Michelangelo could have been inspired by Copernicus. The prob­lem is that Michelangelo fin­ished his paint­ing in 1541 and De Revolutionibus was not pub­lished until 1543.
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