Total solar eclipse solaire 1999. Photo (cc) Luc Viatour
Recently Alex and I were emailing and discussing putting on another session on ancient astronomy at the 2010 Classical Association meeting. We’d agreed on someone to approach to give a talk and were discussing how to go about seeing if others wanted to talk. Sadly that won’t be happening now.
Late last month Alex Smith collapsed and medics were unable to do anything for her. I attended her funeral earlier this week. There was a good turn out and it was fitting send-off for her. As well as being a great person to talk to, she was also a very incisive thinker. It’s hard to say quite how big a loss to ancient history her death is.
One example was a talk she gave at the AMPAH conference in Oxford in 2007. AMPAH is a post-graduate conference for ancient historians. Typically most of the talks at AMPAH are ok, but this time around they weren’t so good. In fact after enduring a session I skipped into town to buy a book rather than sit through another session where the speakers sat down and talked into their papers.
The next session I went to was the one she was speaking in: “The Persian War and its Aftermath”. I was interested in seeing what she had to say as I had an idea about dating the battle of Himera and I thought her work could have been relevant. In fact her talk was brilliant. There were the obvious touches. She had clearly practiced (it still amazes me how few people do). She had PowerPoint slides to illustrate her talk and she talked to the audience rather than the slides. By that alone she was clearly the best speaker there, but what really impressed me was the content.
Her talk was “The Solar Eclipse of the Persian War: Fact or Fiction?” In it she patiently explained to an audience of historians how eclipses happened and how it wasn’t possible for one of the eclipses Herodotus had described had happened. She then went and showed how the text for one of the proposed eclipses need not have been describing an eclipse. The other occurred around the same time as a donkey gave birth to a rabbit and a frog (or something similar) and she was proposing that Herodotus was writing for effect rather than accuracy. Along the way she comprehensively chopped down the basis for my dating of the battle of Himera. Nonetheless, the way she did it — by constantly comparing astronomical calculations with the historical texts – meant I was very happy about it. She was completely comfortable moving between the two methods. Seeing someone talk with that degree of confidence, clarity and skill is a pleasure.
She also handled the questions extremely well. Some of the audience couldn’t grasp there was no eclipse. There were few questions along the lines of “if it wasn’t this eclipse he saw, which one was it?” Her answer was to go through how an eclipse occurs more simplistically. This was far more diplomatic than my response would have been. After the second or third repeat I would have tried to say that the insistence on asking ‘which eclipse’ made as much sense as asking “If the donkey didn’t give birth to a rabbit and a frog, what did it give birth to?”
I didn’t get to see her talk as much as I’d like. I had planned to see her give a seminar in February, but the day before I had been summoned into the hospital for an operation. Still, I am glad I have seen her talk. That and email discussions with her have improved my own work.
She had just completed the first draft of her thesis. It’s hoped that she’ll be awarded a posthumous PhD and her work will be published. When someone dies unexpectedly it’s hard to know what to say. I think her own words would make a terrific memorial.