A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Signum University Fall Fundraiser

It’s that time of year again.  Signum University is having its annual fundraiser, with all the festivities appertaining thereto.  I gravely doubt that anyone who reads this page doesn’t already know that, but there are forces in this world beyond our ken.  Let this be as a sacrifice to the search-engine gods, that prosperity may rain down upon Signum like a summer shower.


I can’t believe I just noticed this: Hobbits don’t like boats, right? The Shire is a fictional version of the West Midlands, right?

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

Of the nine regions of England, eight are on the coast. I’d expect that from a country that’s (a) an island and (b) a maritime power. One of the regions doesn’t touch the sea. It’s only natural that, compared to the others, West Midlanders would get a reputation as incompetent mariners.

So is this the origin of the sidelong remarks in The Lord of the Rings about how incompetent hobbits are on the water? Even if it’s not, I’m perfectly happy to find another reason that the Brandybucks belong in the “liminal” category.

Next question – is this why mariners are exotic heroes from far away in LotR and The Silmarillion?

What do I do for an encore?

My abstract has been accepted for the Mythgard Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium 2016.  What am I going to talk about?  It’s not really done yet, but half-baked ideas are the soul of this blog, so here goes.

Applying geography to LotR worked pretty well. How do I extend this to other books?  Since Tolkien, it’s almost required for fantasy novels to have maps in them. Fantasy novels that include maps invite geographic analysis, but it’s rare to find an author who spends the effort to build the understory of a world to the extent that JRRT did.

In a nutshell:  Speculative fiction begins with world-building, so it ought to be the easiest genre to which science-based criticism could be applied. However, scientific approaches were invented for the real world, which is much larger than any one sub-creator’s imagination. How do I constrain the breadth of the analysis to a scope that is consistent with the author’s intent?

So my talk will show three examples of where geographical analysis gets you.  I’ll start with re-using parts of this summer’s project for The Lord of the Rings, in which geography illuminates implicit references in the text.  Then I’ll review Lyman Stone’s analysis of A Song of Ice and Fire, which runs aground because George R.R. Martin didn’t use geography for anything — Stone’s analysis exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the story.  My third example will be Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay has lots of maps in that book, but doesn’t use geography for the story per se.  I think he’s using it like a website theme:  there are countless details about his world that don’t interest him; his maps and the references to them in the text give the reader permission to fill in any gaps with Renaissance Italy, and it will be fine.  There’s a tangible virtue to that – Kay’s story is the only one of the three that fits into a single volume.

Canons and Chains

In which your Idiosopher considers how to measure an author’s cultural depth.

Brenton has a quotation from a letter by C.S. Lewis that seems to say nice things about the way I’ve been approaching literature. Lewis doesn’t like the idea of canonical lists of books that youngsters should read. I don’t like canonical lists either, unless I’ve read everything on it and can feel smug therefore.  The only time I’ve ever gone and read books because they were part of a canon, it was Michael Dirda’s list of the “100 Best Humorous Novels.” (Alas, no link. It was in the Washington Post, long ago.)

Un jour viendra où l’on montrera un canon dans les musées comme on y montre aujourd’hui un instrument de torture, en s’étonnant que cela ait pu être!
(Someday we’ll exhibit canons in museums, as we do now with instruments of torture, amazed that such things could ever have existed!)

Victor Hugo

What Lewis prefers is a sort of terrain-following model, as one work you love leads to other writers, in a long chain of culture.  It’s not linear, of course. It’s more like following a river through its delta.  Some streams split and merge, some flow straight to the sea, some spin around in eddies and backwaters.

For me, on the science fiction/fact side, one chain was Asimov → Clarke → Niven → Dyson → Feynman → Dirac  → Einstein. [1] On the fantasy side, there’s a chain that goes Tolkien → Ursula LeGuin → Mervyn Peake → E.R. Eddison → Lord Dunsany → Thomas Malory → Medieval romances. [2] To be absolutely accurate, the latter chain should start with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, the libretto of which I read before Lord of the Rings. The chain has a kind of “V” shape in time, bouncing off World War II.

There’s a nice idiosophical vein here.  Lots of people measure the cultural significance of a work by how many arrows lead from it.  LotR, by this measure, might be the most culturally-significant work of the twentieth century, since arrows lead from it to a large section of modern bookstores and the entire art of fantasy role-playing games.[3]  That’s the azimuthal direction, if you will. But maybe there’s another dimension:  Might it be of interest how long the chains are, as well how many chains originate there?  The depth to which authors connect into existing cultural structures seems orthogonal to their azimuthal impact, and might yield interesting insights.  The fact that the metric will be biased towards books enjoyed by teenagers may be entertaining, as well.

Quantitative data to rank various authors by chain-length can be obtained from elderly scholars.  They’ll have to be elderly, because these chains are only visible in hindsight. It seems easily parallelizable, hence ideal for the Web.  The job could be a lot of work, but if you like talking to classicists and medievalists anyway, it wouldn’t be much of a chore.

[1] The linked pages were for fun; they’re unrelated to my own research.
[2] The lectures of Corey Olsen are in there at the last step.
[3] The Tenth Art, I think.

One More Forest

Tom Hillman points out an embarrassing omission in the post about forests:

Of course, I left out the Forest of Drúadan.  It’s unique in LotR, in that trees are the only species Tolkien mentions there.  (Not counting the grass in the Woses’ skirts.)  It’s just a place where things happen.  The other forests Olga and I talked about are much more than that.  They’re practically characters in the story. Drúadan seems more like the old-growth American forests that we saw in The Last of the Mohicans: Large trees, well spaced, with not much undergrowth.

So there’s another question for me to think about:  Is the Forest of Drúadan so bland because JRRT has a battle to get to, and has no time for dawdling?  Or is the forest really a tamed human habitation, between being used as a quarry by the Men of Gondor, and continuously inhabited by Woses?

Middle-Earth’s Forests

Olga has a nice essay at her blog entitled “In the shadows of dark forests”.  She’s all about the “dark, enchanted, haunted woods”: Mirkwood, Taur-nu-Fuin, and the Old Forest. Reading it, I was struck by two absences[1]:  Fangorn and Lothlórien.  Let’s see what their absence might imply.

Fangorn Forest looks at first like another of those magical places, but that changes quickly.  In two pages, the narrator slides his description from”dark and tangled” and “a queer stifling feeling” through “untidy” and “shabby and grey” to “gleam[ing] with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather.” (LotR III,iv) The reader starts out expecting a traditional entry point to Faërie, but then is gradually pulled via domestic, human-centered terms into a comfortable feeling that Meriadoc and Peregrin share.

The Forest of Lothlórien doesn’t have any negative connotations in its description.  “In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering limbs a hint of fallow gold.” (LotR II,vi)  Grey is a friendly color in Middle Earth, gold is pleasing to Man and Dwarf alike, and JRRT even includes the stars as a sort of benevolent framing device.  Boromir expresses reluctance to enter, but both Aragorn and the narrator make it clear that he’s working from bad intelligence.  Lothlórien seems like it ought to be Faërie, but it’s clear that we’re not invited to think of it that way.

Why don’t these two forests fit into Olga’s frightening group?  Because someone is in charge.  Real forests are complicated ecosystems, a huge network of cooperative and competitive relationships between individuals of a myriad of species.  Haldir describes Southern Mirkwood as “a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.”  Competition apparently isn’t a good thing to Haldir. (or JRRT?)  Much better if someone has everything organized, knows the name of each tree, makes sure that each is in its proper place and everybody has enough water and sunlight. Then you have a “good” forest, one which even the Entwives might appreciate.  But the workload — “That would indeed be a burden!” as Goldberry put it. (LotR I,vii)

And now I understand something I didn’t when I started writing this post. The Old Forest looks like it doesn’t fit. When I put Fangorn and Lothlórien on one side, and Mirkwood and Taur-nu-Fuin on the other, they look like the classic dichotomy of Law and Chaos.  For example, from Three Hearts and Three Lions:

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more animistic expression…

Poul Anderson

What, then, do we do with the Old Forest?  It looks to the hobbits like Chaos, but Bombadil is there in the middle of it. Why isn’t it a forest of Law? As Goldberry says, “…all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master.”  I never understood the distinction she’s trying to convey.

Dark Forest

This forest belongs to me, but I am not its Master.

There must be some difference between what Galadriel (for example) does and what Tom does. The word “master” comes from Old English mægester, “one having control or authority”. The Old English word comes from the Latin magister, meaning “the one who is greater”.  Tom doesn’t control things, exactly, though he does seem to have authority.  Like a fencing master!  I don’t have to do what our fencing master says – she’s not the owner of the salle, nor is she the Queen – but if I know what’s good for me I’ll do what she says.  She has authority because she knows more about fencing than I do. And now I know what Tom Bombadil’s role in the Old Forest is.  Because he knows more songs, or his songs are closer to the actual Music, even Old Man Willow does what he says.

[1] There is no way to spell “absences” that will ever look right to this Idiosopher. [back]

Ardagraphic Information Systems: the Paper

The second terrace in spring

My talk from the New York Tolkien Conference 2016, revised and improved by the comments of the audience, is now available for anyone to read.


The Evolution of Dracula

Warning: I am going to disagree with both Corey Olsen and Tom Hillman in this post, so I am wrong about at least some part of it.

I have just finished listening to the Episode 14, the last of the Mythgard Academy classes on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They wound up with a discussion of how Dracula evolved over the twentieth century, from the novel to Dracula 2000. Corey and Tom both expressed some surprise that the “Christian spiritual elements” of the films had gotten more pronounced over time, even though society became more secular.

This trend does not surprise me at all.  I think they were misled by the word “spiritual”.  I would, instead, describe the Christian elements in Dracula as “ritual”.  From this point of view, in the novel, an ancient, supernatural being threatens modern secular society.  To defend itself, our quintet of heroes (a cross-section of society) calls on Professor Van Helsing to drag out of the dustbin of history the rituals developed by an older society to defend itself.  An exact analogy is the discovery of digitalis among old folk remedies, which was refined to treat cardiac disease in modern hospitals.

The religious ritual elements in the movies have been getting stronger because over the last half-century, Christian ritual elements are becoming much more prominent in American society.  It makes good business sense that they should be played up more in the movies.  (And of course, that is the only sense that matters to movie producers.)  One example: Donald Trump, who has based his entire campaign on breaking rules, felt obliged to pretend to be Christian to win the nomination (the famous “two Corinthians” episode). Public obeisance to religion is one rule he dared not break.  Another: After every mass shooting, every elected official sends out a communiqué about how their “prayers are with the families of the victims”.  It seems clear that “pray” in this context means “do nothing”.

I suggest that anyone who is surprised by the growing importance of Christian ritual in Dracula movies over time has been misled because they are thinking of Christianity in terms of its moral or ethical teachings.  If they think of it instead in terms of the inch-deep religiosity that dominates current American politics and culture, along with Hollywood’s natural attraction for superficiality, they will see two trends marching in lock-step.

P.S.  Bram Stoker looks like a feminist (not proven, though few feminists would find any problems in Dracula) because we naturally compare him with the blatant sexism of twentieth-century Hollywood.  Yeah, I’m kinda down on movies these days.

First Solo Flight

It is done. Fertig. Au fait. About 10 people came to my talk, which was one of three in that time slot, so I got my fair share. The audience seemed to like it. The level of glassy-eyed stares in the audience was gratifyingly low. Maybe I’ve learned something about talking to non-scientists since I last taught intro physics.

There was a sardonic remark during the opening plenary session about scientists who stick their noses into areas where they have no expertise. (She meant Fred Hoyle.) Thanks, whoever you were, for setting the bar low for me.  Low bar = no pressure.  (Trust me, that kind of thing has physicists rolling in the aisles with laughter).

I have a bad habit. Over the years, I’ve drifted into a presentation mode of putting graphs up on the screen and improvising the interpretation based on reactions from the audience. That doesn’t work well in a context where (a) they’re expecting me to read from a carefully-written paper, and (b) they’re not waiting to pounce on the slightest error in my Ansatz.  Consequently, I said “um” a lot more than I should have. Next time, I’m just going to read the paper and see what happens.

In the question period, we had a pleasant discussion.  Almost everyone had something to contribute.  Kara Samborsky [1] pointed out that, while I’d been treating the parochialism of hobbits as a running joke through my talk, the Brexit vote seems to indicate that staying where you came from is a serious characteristic of the English. Her observation jibes awesomely well with James Cheshire’s results — the West Midlands (i.e., the trustworthy hobbits) had the highest percentage of “Leave” votes of any region in England. I thought I was giving a science/literature talk, not a current-events/literature talk!

One more “thank you” to everyone who came.  Based on their responses, I need to make some tweaks to the paper before I publish it.  The good thing about that is that I can give another presentation of the revised version.  (In conformance with Arrow’s Other Theorem.)

[1] The blog takes no responsibility for misspellings of Slavic names in the Latin alphabet.

Notes from the NY Tolkien Conference

Now that I’ve recovered from my trip to the Big Apple, and the bottle of Pellegrino is half empty at my elbow, I have a chance to write down what I saw and heard at the NY Tolkien Conference 2016. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, and hear a lot of interesting ideas.  Mission accomplished!  The conference was held at Baruch College (part of the City University of New York), and the obvious joke was already made for me:  When I registered, they handed me a rubber wristband reading “Baruch Khazâd”. Let the record show that I did in fact pass a short man with a long white beard on 24th Street as I entered the building.

Here are my notes on the talks I was able to attend.  Bronwen put a bunch of videos online — Hurrah!

Kristine Larsen

Lewis, Tolkien, and Popular Level Science

The Inklings were no scientists, but they were members of a generation that could take for granted a substantial familiarity with science among their audience. C. S. Lewis used current developments in astronomy to build credibility for his work, even when it led to some odd juxtapositions. My favorite is the fact that Narnia, which is geometrically flat in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, has correct stellar evolution above it in The Last Battle. Kris informed us that the stellar evolution part was brand-new science, just publicized by Fred Hoyle. Lewis used it despite his slight regard for Hoyle.

This is the second academic discipline in which I’ve been present for a Hoyle-bashing session. The thing about Hoyle is that his ideas were wrong as often as they were right, but proving him wrong is worth the effort even today. I learned as much physics detesting Hoyle as I learned admiring Einstein. (BTW, Kris, we certainly can blame Uncle Al for nuclear bombs. But I was of draft age during the Reagan Administration, so I’m more likely to say “credit” than “blame”.)

There was an entertaining discussion of lunar phases, too. They are correct in LotR, totally screwed up in the Hobbit. Lots of writers work astronomy into their stories; Kris pointed out that there are very few built around the theory of evolution. (Would Pokémon count, I wonder?)

Conclusion: The interplay between science and the arts is what we need to encourage. Kris has an acronym: “STEAM” studies instead of “STEM”. JRRT and CSL might approve. Since I’m working in an engineering job with a liberal-arts degree, I concur.

Self-Imposed Reading Assignment:
  • Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time
  • Ray Bradbury, All Summer in a Day

Janet Brennan Croft:

Doors Into Elf-Mounds: JRR Tolkien’s Introductions, prefaces and forewords.

Diana Glyer calls the preface-writer a “resonator”. Resonance is a good physics word — it means that oscillatory energy introduced into a system at certain frequencies doesn’t dissipate. It feeds back into the system, so it persists for a long time.  If energy is supplied at a constant rate, the oscillation of the system can become very large in amplitude. In particle physics, it can even lead to the creation of new things.  This talk gave some explicit examples of JRRT resonating, and the new things that emerged.

Janet didn’t audibly structure her talk this way, but all four relationships between forewords and texts were there:

relationship Example
Text -> Foreword JRRT is frequently an unacknowledged editor of a work, not just the writer of the introduction.
Text -> Text JRRT wrote an introduction to Dialect of the Huddersfield District , which dialect later found its way into hobbit mouths.
Foreword -> Text “Smith of Wootton Major” began as an introduction to MacDonald’s The Golden Key. JRRT wasn’t fond of the moral allegory, so he found his introduction turning negative in tone. That wouldn’t suit the purpose at all, so it became a stand-alone story.
Foreword ->
The Red Book of Westmarch first appeared as a meta-fictional frame in the preface to the 1957 edition of The Hobbit. It later formed the backbone of the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings second edition

The question session was a free-for-all, with the audience tossing out lots of other things Tolkien wrote that count as paratextual material. Janet is going to have to give another talk on this in the future, twice as long.

Self-Imposed Reading Assignment:
  • Diana Glyer, Bandersnatch

Yr. Humble Idiosopher

Ardagraphic Information Systems: Locating Hobbits on the Map of England

My auto-criticism is in a separate post.

Jared Lobdell

Three Inklings and the Sciences of Language

Prof. Lobdell is the author of A Tolkien Compass, which I read in a previous century, and lots of other books which I have not.  He talks about the Inklings in a friend-of-a-friend kind of way that made the whole room envious.

This talk was mostly about a collaboration between JRRT & CSL on a book called Language and Human Nature that was never written. I have to admit, I was kind of lost by his delivery. He seemed to be talking to the lectern, not the people in the room. But it was worth it for the zingers he slipped in. “Tolkien used words so precisely as to make them a pun,” was one of his own. One he took from the Inklings themselves: “Conversations with [Charles] Williams make me understand how the Inquisitors could have burned people. Some students are eminently kickable; Williams is eminently combustible.”

Rebecca Anderson

The science of sub-creation in Tolkien’s corpus

Becky is a student in the Ph.D. program at Waterloo, and it shows. She slings impenetrable academic jargon around like a master sushi chef wields knives. I wish her the best of luck getting her thesis approved quickly, so she doesn’t have to say things like “iconophobia” or “transmedial” any more.

She addressed her topic via the MMORPG Lord of the Rings Online.  In particular, she looked at how it tries to scare you, even when you’re playing as one of the Orcs. For the “good guys”, fright comes from animal characteristics (fangs, scales, etc.) grafted onto a human form. When you’re an Orc, it comes in the form of verbal abuse from your superior officers. (You always have a superior officer.)

There was a long discussion following about how the corporate structure of the content owner (I hate business jargon, but it’s inescapable here) affects the structure of an adaptation of a story to a new medium.  There’s something extremely interesting in there, especially since I’ve worried so long about how American intellectual-property laws seem to be strangling the arts.

Another question: does the cultural embedding of Tolkien count as an adaptation? I’m referring to the image macros, the YouTube mashups, the fan-fiction, the wisecracks in business meetings, and the hundreds of other references to LotR that you can find.  Is there such a thing as crowd-sourced subcreation?

Laurel Michalek & Kaleena Ma

The Importance of Genealogy in Tolkien’s Works

Genealogies are to characters what etymology is to language.  This topic was the closest to what I was talking about. (Kaleena actually referred to my talk, a couple of hours before. Thanks, Kaleena!)  Laurel and Kaleena’s presentation was a review of something Tolkien thought was tremendously important, even though it shows up only peripherally in the text. (Diana Glyer mentions that the biggest revisions in LotR were hobbit genealogies. !)  It was half lecture (Laurel’s word) and half audience-participation trivia game.

The original Call for Papers wanted group presentations, not just people reading papers.  Kaleena and Laurel are the only ones who gave the organizers what they asked for.  The presentation was kind of weak on the “so what?” question, but everybody was having a great time so who cares?


This was my first shot at contributing to a conference in any role other than wisecracks.  I could see that most of the other speakers were citing each other’s previous work.  I did what I could, but this is going to take a lot more reading.  Next year’s theme is the 80th anniversary of The Hobbit.  Less science, more fiction.  Looking forward to it already!

Page 1 of 5

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén