Often the delete key is my friend. A thousand word post has disappeared. I was going to post a response to someone else’s post, and use this video of Douglas Adams as an example of positive atheism. I’m tired of yet another post from someone who says “I’m an atheist, but you mustn’t talk about atheism or offend the religious because atheists are nasty.”
Then I thought if that’s the case why bother? The people who tend to write such posts don’t have anything interesting or positive to say apart from scowling at other people who do. Religious people can produce great works, like Handel’s Messiah which has a religious message in it somewhere. Then you get books like Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, that show the sense of wonder you can have in the workings of the universe. Yet I cannot think of anything remotely inspirational written in the heartfelt belief that compromise is by its nature the goal. No one looks at a beautiful landscape, sighs, and says, “It’d be so much better if there was a small industrial estate in the way. Y’know to balance the environmental and economic needs of society.”
So instead I’ll just put up the video that TED made pick of the week. If you’re intent on some Sunday atheism it’s around 1h 10m in, I think. It’s only a short bit about God. That’s fair enough because it’s a big universe with lots fascinating stuff in it including his Last Chance to See project.
Christopher O’Brien is celebrating one year of blogging at Northstate Science. I have to admit I’ve only been reading it regularly for the past few months, but its a fascinating site. I like his recent posts on Apologetics Archaeology (Part One) (Part Two), but theres more there, like this part of a discussion on how heritage preservation works in the USA. Or how about this on Bone Fragments and Archaeology? If you’re bored of archaeology then there are entries on those pyramids instead.
But if you read just one entry then make it this one on Zooarchaeology and Family Living.
Derek explains the reception menu at the pi-CETL launch
I suppose this should go up on the i-Science blog, but it would seem odd. I know Derek doesn’t read this site so I can say what I like about him here. I was at the launch of the Leicester branch of pi-CETL. pi-CETL is a multi-university consortium looking into teaching Physics in innovative ways. It was quite a big do and we had the vice-chancellor in to open the centre. I feel there’s not enough vice in my life, so I would have liked to have talked to him about getting some more, but he was busy. I also got to hear Derek Raine, the brains behind the Leicester section of pi-CETL and I thought he gave a stellar demonstration of the kind of thing that makes Leicester interesting. Derek has a passion for Physics, but that’s no surprise, any lecturer is keen on their own subject. What he also has are passions for the scientific method and passing this on to other people. Those two are rarer.
For instance there are scientists who decide to work with some ancient history or archaeology and end up pulling anything that looks like their interest out of the past. So you end up with gynaecologists who announce that Stonehenge is a giant womb. It tells us nothing about the past only about the researcher. Similarly you get physicists who’ll talk about possible life on other worlds purely in terms of their physical properties without engaging with the biology. Did you know there could be life on the Moon? Someone sneezed on some of the
Apollo 11 Surveyor 3 equipment and when Apollo 12 brought a sample back they brough back some Streptococcus mitis which survived on the Moon. It didn’t flourish as far as I know, but life is a lot hardier than many people believe. It came as a shock, at least to physicists, because microbe survival didn’t feature in any of the questions they were asking.
This is a slightly re-written version of a short piece I wrote elsewhere. I’m putting it up here because it tackles a timely problem. What do you do when you want to attract tourist dollars, but keep losing out to that big archaeological site down the road? The citizens of Chucuito saw at the busloads of visitors going to Tiahuanaco and decided to build their own temple. The problem is that Tiahuanaco is pretty impressive so any competition would either have to be equally large, or else something pretty noteworthy.
Chucuito Fertility Temple. Photo by Moonbird.
Welcome to the Inca Ullo temple of fertility.
A researcher investigating Inca sites discovered that twelve years ago the people of Chucuito decided to build their own authentic ruins dating from the 1500s. They then concoted a legend that women would visit the temple to ask for fertility. Twenty four stone phalluses later, they had one killer photo opportunity and thousands of visitors. You can see more photos at Jerry Peek’s site, or Rhymer.net. You might be wondering, “Is this safe for work?” but how unsafe could a temple devoted to penis worship be?
The story made a small splash on the web, with brief notices from Ananova and The Commonwealth Times. The Sun had a bigger story, complete with picture. We can only be thankful the reporter didn’t know that the early 1500s in some parts of Peru is known as the Wanka period. The International Herald Tribune only seems to have picked up the story this spring.
The deception raises some interesting questions about consumption of the past. Is it a fake site? The answer might seem to be pretty obviously yes, but what does it mean for a site to be fake? A lot of the myth surrounding King Arthur is made up. Yet people would accept Glastonbury as a genuine Arthurian site but reject Milton Keynes as having any role in the myth. Surely a lot of Milton Keynes would be explained by an Arthurian curse on the land. The boundary between real and fake isn’t hard and fast when looking at mythic sites, as Cornelius Holtorf noted in an earlier version of this post. Does a myth accrue authenticity with the passing of centuries, or can myths be created today?
I suspect the revelation will only increase visitor numbers because now it’s a ‘controversial’ site. Indeed if Disney made a heartwarming film of plucky villagers building a fake temple to save the local orphanage from closing then it would become even more of a draw. Is this site, and heritage sites in general, selling knowledge or experience? One for Michael Shanks or Cornelius Holtorf I think. For a less post-modern approach to experience there’s the Trireme Veterans for Truth.
I signed up for this ages ago, but my library stalled at four books. I thought it was an excellent idea, but cataloguing properly would take a lot of time. I had some unexpected free time today and found that agood thing has become even better. With a bit more of an explore I can now see lists of tagged books for a subject like ancient history. It’s just very very wonderful. I’m making a note now to remind myself when I get home to sign up for a subscription account. Books from my profile will be appearing in the right bar shortly.
Mosaic depicting Anaximander with a sundial.
It’s hard to know how to open something on Anaximander. Herodotus had the right idea. “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory…”
Unfortunately Herodotus, whose history is the earliest that survives, was writing a couple of centuries too late to record Anaximander and that’s shame. From the scant information that does survive Anaximander may be one of the all-time greats of science, up there with Newton, Darwin and Einstein. Unlike Archimedes or Pythagoras none of his ideas remain in use in science today, but his achievement is that he is arguably the man whose work made science possible.
There are plenty of reasons to like Anaximander. One is that he should be a very easy philosopher to be an expert on. Only two fragments of what appear to be his own words survive.
1. ‘Immortal and indestructible,’ ‘surrounds all and directs all.‘
2. ‘(To that they return when they are destroyed) of necessity; for he says that they suffer punishment and give satisfaction to one another for injustice.’
Translation by Arthur Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece
By themselves they look pretty meaningless and short. Apart from memorise them there’s not a lot else you can do. Job done. However you’re supposed to look at them in context, and Anaximander has an awful lot of context.
The Good Book. Photo by Xerones.
As a fire and brimstone atheist I suppose I should berate the Gospels as pillars of an outmoded superstition. Yet while I don’t find the religious message in them compelling, there is some good writing and some good tales. I don’t see any more convincing evidence for the existence of gods in the Gospel of Saint Mark than I do in Herodotus but, like Herodotus, Mark can tell a tale well.