A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: July 2016

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!

Take the Canon Quiz!

Brenton’s at it again. He has made a manageable list of canonical works, “for those who are inclined to soak in this great tradition.” I’m all for that. Let a hundred Harolds bloom. But it seems like missing the point of (a) lists of canonical works and (b) the World-Wide Web, if you make one without making a way to keep score.

Click the appropriate button for whether you’ve read the work (1 point), read part of it (half a point), or haven’t read it at all (no points).  I scored 12.5. I resisted the temptation to give bonus points for reading things in their original languages.

Read Partly Nope
Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)
The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
The Bible
Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)
Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
Hamlet (English, 1603)
Othello (English, 1604)
King Lear (English, 1606)
Macbeth (English, 1611)
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
Moliere, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)
19th Century+
William Wordsworth
• ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (English, 1800)
• ‘Tintern Abbey’ (English, 1798)
Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
Walt Whitman,
Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
• ‘Song of Myself’ (English, 1855)
Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, )
George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time = Remembrance of Things Past (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
Virginia Woolf
Orlando (English, 1928)
A Room of One ‘s Own (English, 1929)
Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
Samuel Beckett
Endgame (English, 1957)
Murphy (English, 1938)
Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

Pitfalls of Scientific Analysis

I’ve mentioned my qualms about bringing science to bear on the world-building of a fantasy author.  The Web provides a brilliant example of what I’m talking about.  Lyman Stone knows about demographics and geography, and tries to apply them to Westeros, from A Song of Ice and Fire. It doesn’t go well for George R.R. Martin (a.k.a. “Railroad”, many years ago).

Martin is interested in the contention between noble houses, and contorts the world around the aristocrats as necessary to set up the scenes he has in mind.  He hasn’t made any effort to ensure that there are sufficient agricultural populations to support the cities, or that the ethnic diversity of the population matches the speed of transportation and communications.

And that’s OK. The book he’s writing doesn’t need all that. But you have to be careful — you can’t increase your appreciation for a book by walking around the backdrops and looking at the hastily-nailed lumber and spilled paint.  You have to stay on stage.  Or, as C. S. Lewis put it in Meditations in a Toolshed, you have to look along the story, not at it.

Elegantly put, Mr. Lewis.  Now, how do we define a coordinate system so I can  place scientific disciplines on the proper axes with respect to a work of fiction?

P.S.  Some ASoIaF fans who don’t read very closely laid into Mr. Stone’s analysis, and were duly smacked down in a follow-up post.

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