A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: October 2016

Fun with Botany

In which, once again, Olga does all the work and I riff off of her creativity.

Olga’s post is about the lights that shone on Arda before the Sun and Moon. Light is where my branch of physics originated, so off we go. I’m primarily interested in the Lamps, and the paradox they seem to contain, which is where she starts.  Chapter 1 of The Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days” is her text.

Varda filled the lamps and Manwe hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days… all was lit as it were in a changeless day.

Then the seeds that Yavanna had sown began swiftly to sprout and to burgeon, and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods.

Silmarillion, Ch. 1, “Of the Beginning of Days”

My quotation overlaps with Olga’s by the first sentence.  I continue to quote because that’s where it gets really interesting.  As I mentioned in my comment on that post, “changeless day” isn’t good for plant growth.  Plants store up energy during the sunlit hours, and then generate new tissue at night.  Mess with that diurnal cycle, and they don’t grow well at all. Prof. Tolkien knew this, of course. He spent lots of time on farms, and kept vegetable gardens.

Tolkien in his vegetable garden

Garden excerpt from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography via Google Books

Constant brilliant light creates a desert.  So where did that multitude of growing things come from? That’s the brilliant part:  Get those enormous trees going, and all the rest follows.  JRRT is describing a cloud forest. The only ones I’ve seen are on the sides of mountains – the most extraordinary was in Kohala, on the big island of Hawai’i. If you don’t have a mountain handy, but you do have a Vala, you just make the trees that high.  Then the moisture transpired from the leaves condenses into a cloud, the leaves of the trees would hold the clouds in place, and there would be a moist, shady area between the tree trunks where “mosses and grasses and great ferns grow.”

Ted Naismith’s painting is designed to look pleasing to European eyes, which it does very well. But a more accurate rendering of Tolkien’s vision might look like this.  Once you get out from under the trees, there’s always a rainbow up there, in case it matters.

I also wonder now if Treebeard, when he remembers the “great trees” of his youth, might not be thinking of these mountain-high specimens.


But enough serious discussion.  I have to point out a bunch of things now.

  1. The Valar live on an island far to the west.
  2. Valinor is a paradise that Men and Elves yearn for.
  3. Halfway to that island in the west (measuring from England), the Valar put a land of Men who had the most powerful navy ever seen. Masters of technology, rulers of the world, stupendous egotists, these guys.
  4. Before Melkor messed everything up, the island was a cloud forest.
  5. “When the lamps were spilled, destroying flame was poured out over the earth.” (ibid.)  Mauna Kea is an active volcano, from which destroying flame pours out daily.

Dear reader, the evidence is clear.  Valinor is Hawai’i.  Yavanna wears a lei and a grass skirt.  Aule and Tulkas, “clad in the raiment of the World”, are wearing loud tropical-print shirts. All you working on the Silmarillion “film” project, take note.

I understand medievalists a bit better

Brad DeLong has an extraordinary economics blog. You can find there lots of economic history, center-left politics, and also unique compositions like a Socratic dialog concerning the Greek fiscal crisis, jokes about the Valar, and who knows what else.

This weekend, he posted about the (lack of) philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics. [1] That’s an interesting topic in itself, but what struck me was the fact that he was quoting from an optically-scanned PDF of a magazine article by John Bell.  The OCR program wasn’t invented for physics, so when we do things like stick a greek letter into an english sentence, it gets confused. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t hard to read.  Because I’ve been through the arguments a dozen times before, it was easy to figure out that”If we take advantage of the indistinguishability of p and p…” actually has two ρ’s in it, and one of them has a circumflex over it.  (By symmetry of the copulating conjunction, it doesn’t matter which one. [That’s a physics joke])

When I look at a medieval document, I can usually recognize a bunch of the words. But understanding full sentences isn’t as easy, so I find a paper by a medieval scholar who interprets it. How do I know she got it right?  This little exercise in point-of-view reversal has given me a lot more confidence that they know what they’re talking about.

[1] If you’re wondering why, a speculation: Prof. DeLong frequently discusses the problems with dynamic stochastic general-equilibrium models of the macroeconomy. This may be a case where he’s looking at physics for guidance about how to stay connected to reality when your equations are fiendishly complicated.

My Notes from MidMoot III

I took a lot of notes at MidMoot 3, held on September 24-25, 2016. Strung end to end, they’re too long for a blog post, so I broke them up into panels.




Janet Brennan Croft: The Name of the Ring: MidMoot 3

This paper is on line.  Janet wrote some really hairy stuff in an easily accessible style, so I won’t re-cap  much of it here.  She starts with Northrop Frye’s organization of literary forms. Myth -> High mimetic -> low mimetic -> ironic.  There are four phases of language to look for.

  • Metaphoric: subject and object linked by some power. Spells, boasts, oaths, magic.
  • Metonymic: “this” is put for “that”. Language describes something beyond itself. Bilbo uses metonymic language with Smaug, calling himself barrel-rider, ring-winner, luck-wearer.
  • Demotic: Subject and object are clearly separated. Words describe an objective natural order. Astrology is replaced with astronomy. The thing evokes the word, and the word has no power to affect anything.
  • Recurso: the cycle restarts. Matter is a form of energy, which finds science leading us back to the mythical. (!) Terms like romantic and extravagant, which were insults in the Middle Ages, are used approvingly now.

The metaphoric/metonymic distinction separates the two reasons not to speak the name of an evil power.  Songs are metaphoric. They bring you through the recurso.

Q: What did Frodo think he was doing, when he put on the Ring? Boromir, Gollum & Sam all had plans for what they’d do. Not him. Tom: the two scenes with Frodo dominating Gollum imply that Frodo did actually know how to use it. JBC: but Frodo has a pattern of rejecting authority and responsibility. Arthur: Frodo doesn’t have a “ring-induced monologue” like everyone else — does he only desire to dominate Gollum? Tim: Self-preservation is Frodo’s goal.

Q: Larry Niven’s story “Grammar Lesson” revolves around the confusion between english-speakers and an alien race when they don’t get the difference in “my” between “my heart”, “my wife”, and “my car”.  Is that what’s going on here?  A: Yes, he’s making the metaphoric-metonymic-demotic distinction clear.  Note added later: C.S. Lewis did this in The Screwtape Letters, too!

Tolkien Studies: Midmoot 3.06

My notes from the last panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Josh Ramsey: Death through a Catholic Lens

Death is a gift, not a tragedy. Catholics think it’s punishment for Original Sin. Is this heresy? The elves who perpetrated the Kinslaying didn’t die, so death is not a punishment. The Men who aided the Valar died, so immortality is not a reward for virtue.

Venerable Bede says Genesis 2:17 doesn’t refer to mortality, it says just “death”, which means spiritual death. Finrod vs. Andreth speak of death as two different things. The spirits of Elves are perfectly at home in the world, unlike the souls of men.  Finrod says it must have been in Men’s power to take their bodies with them when they died — that’s early Christian. Arda-remade lines up with Revelations. (!) Discontent with the world is an echo of our original purpose, to save the world from Morgoth.

The discussion afterwards showed an impressive range of scholarship.

AH: Luthien died and left the world, in a poem called the “release from bondage”. A: wow – haven’t thought of that. Tim: the eastern orthodox say it’s a release from bondage to the passions of the body.

Graham: are you saying the Assumption is the perfect form of Resurrection? A: it’s the 2nd fruit of the resurrection, in the eastern tradition. Marie: brings up the Assumption of Mary, but that’s a special case. She’s the first resurrected. (?) the distinction between heaven and earth is erased after the resurrection.

We decided at this point that resolving the schism between the Greek and Latin churches was beyond our charter. The Protestants in the room hadn’t even weighed in yet!

Grace Costello: Philosophical theories of Musical Expression

Her text was from the “Lay of Leithian”. Oriel feels longing as a result of the minstrel Tinfang Gelion playing underneath his window.  There are several theories of how music affects its listeners that might apply to this situation.

Formalism: music is just notes and rhythms. It doesn’t express emotions, and looks for other ways an emotion can be evoked. It could remind you of another event. It could induce physiological symptoms of the emotion.  Like mimicking a beating heart changing its rate.  Maybe a magical method? We could suppose that music could magically arouse emotions – this doesn’t have any textual support, though.  (I don’t think anybody thinks formalism is 100% of the correct answer — if it were, non-Americans could tell sad bluegrass songs from happy ones without listening to the lyrics.)

Theory of Expression: the music is full of longing. Whose? The composer’s. (Prof. Olsen: never occurred to wonder what Tinfang Warble was longing for.)

Arousalist theory – the music has it, if it arouses the same reaction in any listener. Sounds like the sea-longing Galadriel warned Legolas about.

Blogger’s Privilege again:  At this point I wondered about the note at the beginning of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. “[Errantry is] a rhyme or story which returns to its own beginning and so may be recited until the hearers revolt.”  Does revolution count as an emotional response?

Q: how does a functionalist explain the idea of a lament? A: a slow tempo drags you down by their connectin with the physiological reaction of grief.

Comment from behind me so I don’t know who said it:  Scientists have actually studied why some people are moved to tears by music. It’s partly synesthesia, partly empathy.  (Cool!)

Tom Hillman: These are not the Elves you’re looking for

The complete paper is available on line.

This is the first part of a contribution to a festschrift for Prof. Flieger. He’s starting a project on Elves. You can see Victorian diminished fairies in The Hobbit, and in Gildor, and “Errantry”. In the Lay of Leithian, Tinuviel can hide under hemlock umbels.

Tolkien was trying to turn English tradition back towards the true tradition (like Spenser, or Sir Orfeo). This isn’t an easy job, because it’s so complex. Beowulf traces elves back to Cain, like all the other monsters. Spenser’s fairy knight Redcrosse is a christian elf, with a bloody cross on his chest. Morgan Le Fay takes Arthur to Avalon, even though it’s not going to work. Indeterminacy is a key to Faërie.

The random cruelty of fairies, which I think is their defining characteristic in pre-JRRT literature, is totally missing from Middle-Earth.

This is going to be a fascinating project. I’m eager to see how it comes out.

Speculative Fiction: Fantasy : MidMoot 3.05

My notes from the second panel at MidMoot 3

Joe Hoffman: Fragments of a Geographical Approach to Fantasy Criticism

This paper is on line in its entirety,  by some strange chance.  Some of the symposium attendees looked disappointed when I mentioned I’d taken out the mathematical underpinning of the Tolkien section.  You guys are great!

A couple of interesting questions came up.

Q: Did I look for an alignment of Bree-hobbit names with Englishmen living overseas?  A: I don’t have an easy source for those, but it would be really cool if they were South Africans or Australians.

Q: Did you look along the coast of Cornwall, where Tolkien spent holidays as a child?  A: (Later) I found Chubbs there, but nobody else.

Prof. Flieger suggested the name “Trotter” might be interesting.


Distribution of Trotter in the UK, computed by Oliver O’Brien

That was Tolkien’s original name for “Strider”.  She suggested that it might be from the Scottish borderlands.

A: There is certainly a hotspot there, but the highest concentration is in Lincoln. Running through my associations with that city, I recall that Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men (aka rangers) dressed in Lincoln green. That is exactly the kind of thing I no longer dismiss as coincidence when I’m thinking about Tolkien’s writing.

David Gras: Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis & the Bridge between them

David describes himself as a Christian apologist. (I didn’t know that was still a job title.)

C.S. Lewis didn’t embrace paganism the way JRRT or J.K. Rowling did.  We shouldn’t resist the mythological resonances.  Lots of phoenix imagery in Harry Potter, for example.  Harry Potter and Aslan are bridges between the human world and the Forest. Making the self-sacrifice to save their worlds.

Q: Pre-christian myths have different status from a myth derived from Christianity. A: Lewis wrote a letter on that; you don’t have to abandon the things you learn from ancient myths when you convert to Christianity. We don’t have to avoid them, we should learn from them. The Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of Christ by medieval missionaries. Jesus was portrayed as a white stag; Harry’s patronus is a white stag.

Q: how do you deal with Christians who say that witchcraft is evil so christians must avoid it in books? A: It’s just brought in as a connection to mythology. The things in the book don’t have anything to do with actual Wicca. It’s there to communicate a moral about light, not inform about darkness.

Q: Nobody thinks they’re evil. Witches think they’re a force for good. A force within yourself (hereditary) isn’t what they think. A: When JKR was asked about that, she said that real Wiccans laugh at her books. The Navajo are kind of objecting to her latest work, by the way.

Michelle Markey Butler: Good People Doing Bad Things

A shared theme doesn’t require direct influence. It’s not a cage match, pitting authors against each other to see who did this better. Shared themes are handled very differently by Tolkien and Rowling.  Her examples are Boromir & Sam vs. Lupin, Dumbledore, & Harry.

Boromir accepts that Aragorn is the leader, which is a self-sacrifice. The fact that he’s a good guy is obvious to adults, but children don’t get it. Chesterton: children are innocent and love justice; adults are wicked and prefer mercy. One of the most psychologically-realized characters.  Sam is the hero, but he pushes Gollum past any chance of redemption. The most cynical observation in the book — that people frequently do real damage from just trying to help others.  Note:  It’s widely said that George R.R. Martin is a cynical reboot of Tolkien. This isn’t really true. JRRT has such a deep streak of cynicism that no such thing is needed.

Lupin taught most of the magic. But then he abandons his pregnant wife.  Dumbledore is kindness, patience, and wisdom. Until we learn about his past problems, like plotting to take over the world & rule through wizardry. How could the Dumbledore we thought we knew make those choices?  Harry makes choices that lead to the death of his godfather. He trusts his dreams too much, even when his friends urge him to wait. Harry can’t be a solitary hero. Without his friends, bad things happen.

Speculative Fiction: SF : MidMoot 3.04

These are my notes from the first panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Neil Ottenstein: Dreams and Prophecy in Babylon 5

I usually think of myself as a science-fiction fan. Compared to Neil, I am not. When I want to quote a work, I type out the words on a screen. When Neil wants to quote from Babylon 5, he comes to the front of the room with a stack of bound quarto volumes of scripts, opens each one in its turn, and reads passages to us with a reverent tone. That’s a true fan.

This was another in his series of talks about prophecy. It was orders of magnitude smaller in focus than his presentation at MidMoot 2. B5 doesn’t have a radical concept of prophecy. “We create the future with our words and our deeds. Prophecies are possible futures, not certainties.”

The Centauri seem to be able to make prophecies and confine them to things that are fixed. Unlike other characters who talk about things that may or may not happen, depending on people’s choices, the Centauri seem to be able to perceive “constants of the motion”, making prophecies that are going to turn out to be true no matter what.

Margaret Ann Mendenhall: The Borg: Is assimilation Fertile?

First question: is Star Trek’s humanism patriarchal? It certainly privileges Western values.

Margaret projected the text of the Prime Directive (non-interference with other cultures) up on the screen, and proceeded to slice it to ribbons. Nearly every phrase in it comes from mid-20th-century American ideology. Our perspective, here and now, isn’t that far removed. We’re in the same country, just 50 years later, but those words no longer look to us like a statement of a principle to live by. We now see terms like “healthy development” or “normal cultural evolution” as bags that carry a lot of prejudice in them.

(I’d point out here that those ideologies are honored more in the breach than the observance. Roddenberry may have been writing them down explicitly to get the US to recognize how far short of them our actions in (e.g.) Vietnam were. Which doesn’t disagree with Margaret’s thesis in any way.)

Of course, this gets taken to extremes in the show. Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive every chance he gets. As Jon pointed out, the Prime Directive is a plot generator, not an actual law to live under. Life would be very stressful under a code that was designed to maximize the frequency of exciting events.  Possibly recognizing this, newer incarnations of Star Trek have replaced the Prime Directive with an ideology of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”.

On to patriarchy. The presentation of the Borg in “First Contact” shows a feminized twist. The Borg Queen is a Great Goddess figure. (I hadn’t seen this movie – apparently the Borg have been transformed from a mechanical assembly to an insect hive.) It’s a gylany rather than a patriarchy. It works by horizontal linkages, not a command hierarchy.

Now, by assimilating other species into their collective, the Borg is perfecting them.  I got whiplash at this point, because if you say “market” instead of “collective”, it sounds like the attitude of  global capitalism.

Q: Aren’t the Borg and Starfleet both making decisions for other people. What’s the difference? A: They’re both symbolizing the unconscious.  (The subspace network the Borg use to communicate is the Jungian collective unconscious. Fascinating, to coin a phrase.)

Q: (from VF) are the theories you’re working from applicable to western fantasies at all? A: Yes. Her dissertation is about how the Hero’s Journey has been taken over by monotheists to mean pefection of the soul. She’s instead balancing Artemis, Lilith, and Isis in a lemniscate. (MM didn’t say “lemniscate”, but she laid “gylany” on us and I must have revenge.)

Kris Larsen: Mad Scientist Alphabet Soup

Mad scientists aren’t all lone wolves. Kris is talking about three organizations of mad science.  Their common features: obsession with experimental design (she says this like it’s a bad thing); Population-control mission; and complete disregard for informed consent.

First, the DHARMA initiative from “Lost”. Numerology – terms in an equation to predict the number of years left for the human race. The initiative is trying to change one of the parameters and lengthen our existence.

WICKED from The Maze Runner:  plans to eradicate half the population with a virus, because we’ve overloaded the planet. The virus didn’t work as planned. Natural immunity became a valuable commodity. WICKED used immunes to generate a cure.

NICE from That Hideous Strength:  There’s been a decades-long debate about whether this is an attack on science, or just scientism.  Their goal is to “Make man a really efficient animal.” NICE will “take charge of Man”.  Direct manipulation of the brain is their goal. Same as Wicked. Wither and Frost are two definite mad scientists. (How about Glitter and Lost?)

Lewis’s bitter observation: to parents, “Experiment on a child” is a bad thing. But offer them a seat in an “experimental school”, and they’ll sign right up.

Kris ended with an exhortation to science not to forget that we might be working from immoral principles. Fascinating exchange at the end of this talk:

  • Q: Why are there mad scientists, but nobody ever denounces mad theologians or literati? A: We scientists are highly respected.
  • Prof Olsen: do scientists have a proclivity that way? Philostrato isn’t mad, though he’s a dupe. A: Nobody wants to read a novel about normal scientists.
  • CO: it’s a compliment to scientists – in order for them to do evil, they must be insane.
  • Jon: science stripped of humanity leads to these effects.

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