The Michelangelo Code


The Last Judgement - Michelangelo
Last Judgement. Fresco in the Sistene Chapel by Michelangelo.

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.

The most inter­est­ing talk of the NAM his­tor­ical ses­sion was the excel­lently titled Michelangelo Code. Valerie Shrimplin based her talk on part of her PhD thesis Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ avail­able from Truman State University Press. It tackles some­thing that ini­tially doesn’t seem to be a prob­lem. She also cov­ers this in her paper of the same title in the Sixteenth Century Journal (Vol 21.4 1990 pp 607–44 JSTOR) which I’ve lif­ted the above quote from. The text above seems a reas­on­able descrip­tion of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. In fact it’s from De Revolutionibus, by Nicholas Copernicus describ­ing his helio­centric cos­mo­logy. Did Michelangelo paint Copernicus’s heav­ens in the Sistine Chapel?

It seems unlikely. De Revolutionibus was pub­lished two years after Michelangelo fin­ished the chapel. After Copernicus’s death helio­centri­cism became con­tro­ver­sial. It could be accep­ted as a math­em­at­ical device, but as a rep­res­ent­a­tion of real­ity, which is how Michelangelo uses it, it would later be seen as heresy. The accep­ted explan­a­tion is that Michelangelo came to place Christ in a cent­ral pos­i­tion inde­pend­ently, but this is an odd explan­a­tion when you look at other depic­tions of the Last Judgement and what it is sup­posed to do.
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If you don’t debunk alternative archaeology then what’s the… umm… alternative?

Ancient Sumerians. Photo by Santa Rosa

I had a slight worry a few weeks back. I found a book that tackled a large swathe of altern­at­ive archae­ology telling the truth about it. The sub­title was The Disinformation Guide to Ancient Civilizations, Astonishing Archaeology and Hidden History. It was a sur­prise because I keep kick­ing around an idea of writ­ing my own dis­in­form­a­tion guide. I flipped it open the con­tents page and found that it’s prob­ably an uncrit­ical trip through altern­at­ive archae­olo­gies greatest hits. So it’s not quite what I want to do.
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Should we treat alternative mathematicians the same way we treat alternative archaeologists or historians?


A fractal by Auntie K.

Here’s a post I’ve been try­ing to write for months. Discussion on Sharon Howard’s site and at the Hall of Ma’at has given me another prod into hav­ing a go. It’s not that I have a prob­lem identi­fy­ing what to say, it’s a mat­ter of try­ing to say it politely. What do you do when someone spouts demon­strable non­sense at an aca­demic con­fer­ence or in a paper? For instance I’ve been told far too many times by dif­fer­ent people that a per­son is a fractal of soci­ety. Now there are many responses to that, but my first is always that I’d like to ask “How have you cal­cu­lated the Hausdorff dimen­sion?”

Yet I can’t help feel­ing that would be a bit rude. My usual action has been to leave it. If there’s no value in what they’re say­ing then I thought no-one would apply it in their own work.
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Miscommunication in Archaeoastronomy


Miscommunication in Archaeoastronomy

The talk should now be live on Leicester’s Breeze site. You’ll need to accept the secur­ity cer­ti­fic­ate, but if you have broad­band then it should run after that. This ver­sion is 17 minutes long. It’s not exactly the same as the talk I’ve given today but it’s close. I impro­vise wildly dur­ing the talk look­ing at when I’m con­fus­ing people. The lack of eye-contact made the recor­ded ver­sion quite a trial. Some slides took many many attempts. Every stumble over a word now sounds like a yawn­ing chasm.

If you’d like to hear oth­ers from the i-Science centre give sem­inars then don’t say so here. There’s an email address on the final slide. Email there and the centre have more evid­ence than my pos­sibly over­enthu­si­astic word that more sem­inars should be going up online.

So which constellation was it?


I’m hav­ing to write this up early, so a late flurry of votes on Slooh might change the final tally, but at the moment the res­ults are:

Constellation Votes Here Votes @ Slooh Total
Orion 4 5 9
Hercules 1 4 5
Boötes 2 0 2
Andromeda 0 1 1

This is inter­est­ing for me because I think it’s Hercules and the pub­lished iden­ti­fic­a­tion is Boötes. I added the option of Orion as an after­thought because I thought it would be use­ful to see if people are bring­ing their own famili­ar­ity with con­stel­la­tions to interpretations.

To see why G.L. Huxley thinks it’s Boötes you need to turn the sherd upside down. If you do this then the scrawl in the middle becomes Arcturus. The pen­ta­gram on the right is eta Bootis and the pen­ta­gram on the left is zeta Bootis. Another reason the Huxley gives for this being Arcturus is that it’s the bright­est star in the Northern Hemisphere and that there’s a Beta for Boötes on the sherd.

Graffito as Bootes

The Beta is back­wards, which might be a prob­lem, but prob­ably not. This is a sherd from around 500 BC, which is at the early stages of lit­er­acy in the Greek world. At this stage there was no con­sensus about which way round the let­ters should go and Pithekoussai, the site where this sherd was found, did have a ret­ro­grade alpha­bet, so this matches nicely what we know about the cul­ture. From an astro­nom­ical per­spect­ive it’s more dif­fi­cult.
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Desperately seeking constellations? Part III



This is the final post on the topic till Thursday. Following advice in the com­ments, I’ve put up this dia­gram on the Slooh forum which should have some eager ama­teur astro­nomers. I don’t know what the feed­back will be like, so I’ve decided to put up the poll here too. If the poll is act­ive then over on the right you should see the an astro­nom­ical graf­fito from Pithekoussai. If you’re famil­iar with con­stel­la­tions then I’d appre­ci­ate it if you could select the most likely con­stel­la­tion from the options given. You’re wel­come do dis­cuss what you think it is, but I’d be grate­ful if you vote before you read the com­ments as I’d like your opin­ion, rather than your opin­ion of someone else’s opinion.

On Thursday morn­ing I’m giv­ing the talk at NAM, and the plan is to hyper­link to this site and the Slooh site to see if there’s an obvi­ous win­ner. I have a grow­ing feel­ing it’s going to tor­pedo my pet the­ory which might make the con­clud­ing com­ments inter­est­ing. Sadly you won’t get to see my embar­rass­ment, but there is a con­sol­a­tion. You’ll be able to see a ver­sion on the web from mid­day Thursday.

Natalie Bennett asked why aren’t aca­dem­ics using things like Skype to cre­ate their own pod­casts? Clanger got it right in the com­ments not­ing that the biggest bar­rier: “most of all, you need to under­stand what it is.” I hadn’t paid it any atten­tion because I simply thought of it as tele­phony and I hate being tele­phoned. After some invest­ig­a­tion I found that for vari­ous reas­ons it can’t hap­pen yet at Leicester. However, we do have a Breeze server which we can use. If you have a Flash plug-in (well over 95% of people do) then you should be able to watch a PowerPoint slide show with me nar­rat­ing over it.

Depending on feed­back there may be more sem­inars to fol­low. We try to have monthly sem­inars for a gen­eral sci­ence audi­ence which could be recor­ded as they’re given. I can’t prom­ise any­thing soon though as I’m the most junior mem­ber of the i-sci depart­ment (just below the lab mouse) and by the time it’s agreed to pro­duce more it’ll be sum­mer and we’ll all be off on fieldwork.

The Orientation of Roman Camps and Forts

View from the Observation Tower, Wallsend

Blackwell’s have made an issue of the Oxford Journal for Archaeology access­ible to the pub­lic. This is a par­tic­u­larly good one for me as it includes a paper by A. Richardson, The Orientation of Roman Camps and Forts. In some ways it’s slightly annoy­ing as it was some­thing I planned to look at after com­plet­ing my thesis, but it’s a good illus­tra­tion of work that could be done by any­one with an interest in ancient astro­nomy.
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