A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: mythgard academy (Page 1 of 3)

Hail, Caesura

In which the Idiosopher appreciates the poetic value of zeroes of the first time-derivative.

Tom Hillman has written a Mythgard Academy bank-shot post, in which he draws a line from the song-duel between Finrod and Sauron in The Silmarillion, to a poem in Boëthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, to the beach in Long Island.  Tom points out an almost-caesura in J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse:

Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.

Silmarillion, ch. 19

The alliteration on “s” in lines 3-5 is onomatopoetic to me.  We’re hearing waves on the beach.  The caesura effect comes from the repetition of “beyond” and “on sand”.  The forward progress of the poem glides gently to a halt, then resumes, like a wave losing energy as it climbs the beach, before it returns to the sea. To a first approximation, the distance a wave travels up the slope of the sand is a parabola. We see only the nose of the parabola, because another wave comes along and uses it as a lubricant against friction with the land.   What we see is Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Wave height as a function of time

This is a good time of year to think about that. We’ve just passed the solstice, so the same sort of thing is happening with the sun. The sun has been in the sky perceptibly longer each day; now that’s come to an end like waves running out of energy on the sand.  The actual length of the day is a complicated function of the earth’s axial tilt, the latitude of the observer, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the nutation of the earth’s rotation, and even a little factor due to the Moon.  The Naval Observatory keeps track of all this.  We can use a much simpler approximation, and treat everything as circles.  [geometric derivation with awesome ASCII art]  That yields an equation you can actually read.  The fraction of a day during which the sun is up is

2 acos[sin(λ) tan(τ sin(2πy))],

where λ is the latitude of the observer, τ is the earth’s axial tilt, and y is the number of days since December 21st divided by the length of the year in days.  The approximation is about 10 minutes shorter than the true amount of sunshine at my latitude, as shown in Figure 2.  Not bad, Copernicus!

Fig. 2. Daylight in Virginia

So here we are, just past the noontide of the year.  The vegetable plants have stopped their manic growth phase. (Fortunately, so has the grass.)  The botanical world is in a caesura of its own for a few days.  The beanstalks made it to the tops of their poles just in time.  The squash vines have found every inch of space they can reach.  Now they’re hunkering down to making seeds and fruits.  My job protecting them from skulking vegetarians will begin soon enough, but now is a time to take a breath.

Yes, the camera is at eye level. This year’s experiment is a 15-foot bean trellis.

My greatest wonder

The theme of Mythmoot IV was “Invoking Wonder”, and lots of people who attended have been posting about works that have inspired wonder in them.  Here are noteworthy contributions from Kat and Tom.

I tried to think of works of art that inspired a similar wonder in me, but they kept getting drowned out by a work of science and engineering:  The Hubble Space Telescope‘s Deep Field images.

Galaxies beyond galaxies

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image

This is what science is all about.  They persuaded people to build the most amazing astronomical machine in history, and then pointed it towards places where nothing is.  No stars in our galaxy, no clouds of dust that will one day coalesce into solar systems.  And they found that even the emptiest part of the sky is filled with thousands of entire galaxies.  Not just there, of course.  Behind every star we can see, there’s a similar multitude of island universes, drowned out by the closer light sources.

The Silmarillion came out before the Hubble, so I didn’t have this in my mind when the Elves first awoke and saw the stars and said “Behold!” by the shores of Cuiviénen.  But now I know what they meant.

This particular image was taken in the near infrared, not visible light, because these galaxies are too old to be seen in visible light.  They upshifted the light to what it must have looked like when it left the sources. These galaxies are so old that many of them do not yet contain stars.  We’re ahead of the Elves now.  Pace Mithrandir, this is wizardry indeed!

Michael Drout: The Decline and Hoped Rebirth of Germanic Philology

Michael Drout gave a fascinating keynote address at Mythmoot IV. Honestly, the last thing I expected to hear was a call to action.

Edited to add:  A video recording of the talk is now online.

We 120 were a big audience, by Germanic-philology standards, but it was not always so. In 1848, Jakob Grimm was Guest of Honor at the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung where they wrote the Constitution. “Who is a German?” was the defining question for 150 years of European history. Philology was a tool in this nationalistic task, and Jakob Grimm was the master philologist.

Grimm’s work wasn’t confined to an ivory tower.  His methods made it possible to read long-dead languages, and thereby investigate cultural history in words. Success in application makes something important. Because it had real-world effects, philology dominated scholarship before WWII the way physics did afterwards. But philology was basically wiped out, between 1945 and 1951, an effort that was enthusiastically supported by literary scholars who wanted to erase their Nazi-sympathizing pasts. It doesn’t exist any more as a requirement for an English degree.

Apart from institutional antipathy, another problem that bedevils philology is the absence of good textbooks. You can’t learn it without a good teacher. It’s taught by the apprentice method, which is unsurpassable for quality of education, but, being highly susceptible to Baumol’s disease, isn’t a good way to rebuild an entire field of study. Professor Drout stated ex cathedra that current philologists are fewer and less capable than their predecessors. He bolstered the assertion with examples of archaeological discoveries that were more-or-less predicted by philological analyses of ancient texts, and said that such skill has vanished, now. (I’ll take his word for it; but some day I’d like to see all the predictions that didn’t come true.) “How do we know that?” asked Timdalf, which was a very good question. Drout’s answer is that he sees signs of it all through the old literature — many parts of reviews and commentary aren’t explained because everybody knew them. There are traces all through the journals of vanished networks of communication and understanding. We have no referents for them.

Professor Drout next developed his story with a diatribe against Literary Theory. He’s not so well educated as his predecessors because he had to learn Theory to get a job. Even from my brief incursion into the field, I know what he’s talking about.  “The theorists tried to destroy philology, which cursed them as it died.”

The general decay of literary studies is a consequence of losing the academic rigor that philology brought. Literary Theory doesn’t have much of it. Here is Professor Drout’s call to arms: let us, Signum University faculty, students, and scholars in its orbit, restore philology to its proper place.  The old philologists didn’t completely understand this a hundred years ago, but now we know philology is grounded in neuroscience. Philology is a way for literary studies to catch up with the rest of the academy in rigor. Without a philological foundation, no theoretical treatment should be taken too seriously. In conclusion, he suggested that we, the Tolkien fans who have become philology fans, are like gardeners who are watering the seeds, against the day when philology sprouts again.

The conclusion was inspiring. The last thing we expected from a plenary talk was to be charged with a mission. (It wouldn’t be the last of the weekend!). Not all the eyes in the audience were dry when Professor Drout finished.

I was left with two questions to ponder.

  1. Professor Drout is one of the best at speaking Anglo-Saxon that I’ve ever heard. He’s so good at it that he can sell recordings. Seth Lerer is the other; both are philologists, not just literary critics. It seems likely that studying philology is necessary to pronounce an ancient language well. Is it sufficient? Or are other skills needed, too?
  2. The knowledge that philologists used to have isn’t well-represented by a chain of facts. It’s a network. This seems like the sort of thing Google Scholar was invented for. Might it be possible to program a neural net with the corpus of the technical literature, which can then serve as an assistant to someone who wants to reproduce and extend the old discipline?


Bullet Lists from Mythmoot

Mythmoot IV is over and done, and it was a blast. I heard a lot of good scholarship, met a lot of interesting people, bought some books, and was stalked by Tevildo, Prince of Cats. (Starsha tried to get photographic proof, but taking a picture of a black cat in the middle of the night is among the most difficult tasks in the visual arts.)

Things I have never done before:
  • Pronounced “oidhche” (even if I didn’t do it right)
  • Drawn up a tax code for Gondor
  • Danced the Virginia Reel with a priest
  • Sørina Higgins is so good at asking questions of panelists that I frequently find myself noting her questions rather than the answers.
  • Verlyn Flieger is not only extraordinary at delivering the punch line to a lecture; she can even improvise them.
  • Michael Drout can read an audience as well as the best stand-up comics.

I’ll have more detailed notes on some highlights coming up, though not a full “proceedings” like I did last year.

Latin Verse for hoi Polloi

Tom Hillman seems to have invented a way to be a visiting professor at an online university. Since the beginning of the Boëthius class, Corey Olsen has held forth on numerous occasions about the impossibility of translating poetry into another language. Tom has taken up the cudgel, and is inserting real Latin into the lectures. Cool! This time it needed a visual aid.  I listen to Academy lectures in my car, so I fired this one up in a browser when I got home to figure out where the colors were. Voilà:

This was a very clear explanation of what was going on, understandable even by your Idiosopher, who learned Latin and Greek from dinosaur names. [1] In response to Jennifer’s question, you can find Boethius’s original Latin at the Perseus Project.

Since I don’t have any contributions to make to the study of classical poetry, I’ll take this opportunity to tell a story of the time I used Latin in public.  I had gone to the doctor about a rash beside my right eye.  The doctor said, “I think it’s periorbital dermatitis, but I’d better ask my partner.”  The partner came in, swear-to-god wearing one of those mirrors on a headband that you see in old movies, inspected me, and declared, “Yes, it’s periorbital dermatitis.”  Well, by that point I’d had a minute to work it out so I asked them, “Did you just say I have ‘skin-around-the-eye disease’?”  They both stood there looking sheepish.  I decided to call that a standing ovation.

[1] “Latin and Greek” is one language to scientists.  We assume the words with an “h” after a consonant like “autochthonous” or “phthalate” are Greek, and all the rest aren’t.

Boëthius goes to Science Class

In his Mythgard Academy class, Corey Olsen pointed out that The Consolation of Philosophy contains a reference to how small the Earth is compared to the cosmos. This comes from Ptolemy in the 2nd Century CE, and is qualitatively correct.[1] By that point in the text, I had noticed that Boëthius argues frequently from scientific evidence, and I’d been highlighting the various claims he makes. Suppose he were being graded by a modern science teacher – here’s how he might come out.


Sound fills the ears of many at the same time without being broken into parts.” This sentence was the thing that set me to high-lighting. I had no idea that they knew that much wave theory in Late Antiquity. Nowadays, we call this Huygens’ Principle. Huygens gets the credit, not Boëthius, because his formulation allows it to be used for experiments and theoretical advancements. 10/10.


Then, for the same reasons, this also is necessary—that independence, power, renown, reverence, and sweetness of delight, are different only in name, but in substance differ no wise one from the other.” (Bk. 3, P10.)  “Either there is no single end to which all things are relative, or else the end to which all things universally hasten must be the highest good of all”. (Bk. 3, P11)

These two are pretty much the same claim, that all good things are unified. Boëthius wants to define a highest good, so he needs good things to be a well-ordered set, or different people might have different ideas about what constitutes the “highest”. This proposition is essential to his entire argument, and it’s a theorem of mathematics: you can’t have a well-ordered set made of multiplets of numbers. Whether this is logically equivalent to monotheism, I leave to theologians, who by both nature and training are more subtle than Idiosophers. 10/10.


nothing can be better in nature than the source from which it has come;” (Bk. 3, P 10.)
Incorrect. The whole purpose of human labor is to add value to raw materials. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is much “better in nature” than a block of marble in a quarry. 0/10.

How poor and cramped a thing, then, is riches, which more than one cannot possess as an unbroken whole, which falls not to any one man’s lot without the impoverishment of everyone else!
Boëthius does not know about economies of scale. Division of labor and cooperation via markets have brought prosperity to our world that would be unimaginable in his. While it is true that the principle is frequently abused and greedy rich men enjoy impoverishing those around them, nevertheless the foundation of the global capitalist economy encourages entrepreneurs to find ways to produce goods en masse, which thereafter make entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy while improving the lot of their customers. Boëthius sees only the down side and misses the positive. 5/10.


[If satisfying bodily desires] can make happiness, there is no reason why the beasts also should not be happy, since all their efforts are eagerly set upon satisfying the bodily wants.
Your Idiosopher infers that Boëthius did not have pet dogs. I have fed Labrador Retrievers — if there is any creature on Earth that has ever attained a more perfect happiness than those dogs at dinner time, I have not seen it. 3/10; maybe he had a cat.

“[W]ould not that body of Alcibiades, so gloriously fair in outward seeming, appear altogether loathsome when all its inward parts lay open to the view?” (Bk. 3, P8)
Never having met Alcibiades, your Idiosopher can not talk about the condition of his specific innards. But inward parts in general can be fascinating. The human brain is a supercomputer that runs on 50 W of power and fits in a hat.[2] Kidneys are marvelously effective filtration systems for their size. And if you gave me a handful of jelly and told me to build two cameras out of it, I feel sure that the result would be much less effective than eyes. This is an attitude that derives from disgust, not science. 0/10.

Nature is content with few things, and with a very little of these. If thou art minded to force superfluities upon her when she is satisfied, that which thou addest will prove either unpleasant or harmful.” (Bk. 2, P 5.)
Anyone who has ever kept a vegetable garden knows this is not the case. Nature is all about superfluity. Bacteria, plants, fungi, and animals all reproduce to the maximum extent that resources will allow, because that’s the best way to guarantee survival when they are surrounded by predators. The story of nature is the contest for resources among a multitude of over-procreative species. Vegetable gardens produce food because gardeners intervene in the process, warding off predations so the surplus production of the plants is not consumed by competitors, but rather by the gardeners themselves. As James Lawson describes it in his First Steps to Botany (1826): “No species, perhaps, either of plant or animal is made for itself alone ; and hence, as vegetables produce a superabundance of seeds for the nourishment of certain races of animals….0/10.

Looking to living creatures, which have some faults of choice, I find none that, without external compulsion, forego the will to live, and of their own accord hasten to destruction. For every creature diligently pursues the end of self-preservation.” (Bk.3, P11)
There are many creatures that devote themselves to a higher end than their self-preservation. Bees will unthinkingly sting anyone who threatens their hive, though they die in the process. Ants will drown so their hill-mates can cross a stream. Human soldiers give their lives for their countries. 0/10.

“‘Now, dost thou know,’ said she, ‘that all which is abides and subsists so long as it continues one, but so soon as it ceases to be one it perishes and falls to pieces?” (Bk.3, P11)
“Now, that which seeks to subsist and continue desires to be one; for if its oneness be gone, its very existence cannot continue.” (ibid.)
This is incorrect. Bacteria, amoebae, and many other micro-organisms die unless they split themselves into parts. Mitosis in the higher animals works the same way. I wonder how Boëthius would have reacted, had he known that for most living creatures, remaining unified means extinction. It seems to tie into the monotheistic foundation of his philosophy, but in a contrary sense. 0/10.


Our good Anicius Manlius recapitulates the phylogeny of science fairly well. The older the science, the better he understands it. He’s an “A” student in math and physics, but the newer sciences contradict his evidence at every turn.

[1] Richard Fitzgerald, in the physics department at UT-Austin, has translated the Almagest of Ptolemy, not only into English, but into modern mathematical notation as well. I love the Internet.

[2] Your move, Apple!

How to Catch a Baggins

I’m almost caught up with the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow.  This morning I finished Class #12.

There was quite a bit of discussion of Gildor’s comment that the other hobbits will mess up the ability of the Black Riders to track Bingo by smell. How did they do that?  Here’s (half of) the slide that was on screen at the time.

I think it likely that your three companions have already helped you to escape: the Riders did not know that they were with you, and their presence has for the time being confused the scent.

Return of the Shadow, p. 282

Well, let’s back up a step and ask a more basic question: Why did Sauron send creatures to look for Bagginses who can’t see very well, but can smell? As Corey Olsen said, it’s wrong to think of Black Riders acting like bloodhounds. They do not have superhuman olfactory organs.  They can’t detect the differences between hobbits by scent. After all, they’d never met a hobbit until they got to the Shire. They didn’t know what hobbits smell like, any more than Smaug did. They had to be searching for a smell that they hadn’t experienced personally, but had been described to them.  It would have to be a very strong smell for that to succeed.

The Black Riders were tracking the smell of tobacco smoke.

In the published Fellowship of the Ring, we hear about “sniffing” in Chapter 3, when the hobbits are out on the road. We don’t hear Gaffer Gamgee mention it.

Ceci n'est pas une bague.

In our war against the West, this has always been our greatest foe.

Out on the road, sniffing works. In Hobbiton, where lots of people smoke, Black Riders were at a loss.  They couldn’t find Baggins because everyone in Hobbiton smells like that.  And since they don’t know anything else about hobbits, smell is all they’ve got to go on.  Without smell, they have to ask nicely, and perhaps bribe if asking doesn’t work.

This clears up something I’d wondered about in the published Fellowship of the Ring.  Gandalf is rather pleased with his cleverness in getting half of the Black Riders to follow him away from Weathertop.

“I hoped to draw some of them off, and yet reach Rivendell ahead of you and send out help. Four Riders did indeed follow me, but they turned back after a while and made for the Ford, it seems. That helped a little, for there were only five, not nine, when your camp was attacked.”

LotR II,i

How did he draw them off?  On the “other side”, where Ringwraiths have frightening forms and Glorfindel shines brightly, Gandalf can hardly be mistaken for a hobbit.  The Ringwraiths know he’s there, and they can’t be very eager to tangle with a Maia when their mission is to capture a Baggins.

Now we know the answer:  Gandalf smokes tobacco, too.  When the Ringwraiths smelled Gandalf, they smelled the smell of their quarry. They knew Gandalf was there, but they couldn’t take the chance that he didn’t have a Baggins with him, so they divided their forces and attacked Frodo’s camp with only half their strength.

The Ideal Reader

Terry Eagleton doesn’t like his predecessors in the field of literary theory. I suspect this is because the word “theory” has so many definitions that it’s useless in this context, but more about that in a future post.  At the moment, I’d like to call attention to one of the daggers he sticks in the back of the Structuralists.

For the structuralists, the ‘ideal reader’ of a work was someone who would have at his or her disposal all of the codes which would render it exhaustively intelligible. The reader was thus just a kind of mirror—reflection of the work itself — someone who would understand it ‘as it was’. An ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, and free of any hampering restrictions. If this model was pressed to an extreme, he or she would have to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. It is true that one does not tend to meet many readers who fill this bill entirely satisfactorily, but the structuralists conceded that the ideal reader need not do anything so humdrum as actually exist.

Literary Theory, p.105

Submitted for your consideration:  We, here in the World Wide Web, and especially the teachers and students of the Mythgard Academy, are creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideal reader. Nowhere was it ever said that the reader had to be one person.  In fact, for most of history, that’s not what reading was.

Going down the list of criteria:

  • Equipped with technical knowledge? Check. At Tolkien conferences, I have met astronomers, botanists, classicists, doctors, economists, physicists (sorry, that’ll have to do for “F”), geographers, historians, idiosophers … And I’d bet a dollar there’s at least one zymurgist among us.
  • Faultless in applying our knowledge? Well, not at the first try, but we’re a group, and we point out faults and mend them together.
  • We are certainly stateless, in that we’ve got people from lots of countries within our ensemble.
  • We’re ungendered.  Groups don’t even have genders, per se.
  • Classless? In a purely Marxist sense, which is appropriate for Eagleton, we come mostly from the bourgeoisie, but I’m of solid proletarian stock. (I can’t be the only student who’s used both a manure fork and GoToWebinar within two hours, but I’m sure not all of us have.) In a more relevant American sense, there are several orders of magnitude of wealth between the students and the doctors and lawyers among us. Subjugation to class interests is not a problem.
  • Free of ethnic characteristics … maybe. I’ve never heard most of us mention their ethnicity. I know of seven or eight ethnicities, depending on whether you count Angles and Saxons as different. Anyway, though we’re reading books written with a specific ethnic purpose, everyone I’ve heard counts new ethnic perspectives as a win.
  • “Without limiting cultural assumptions.” This is one of those things that makes me wish that e-books came with a virtual author I could punch. We are all (1)reading books (2) written in the mid 20th Century (3) in English and (4) discussing them on the Internet. That’s a pretty narrow cultural slice. And the opinions of people who don’t do the first three things aren’t important to understanding the books.

Altogether, it is not true that I haven’t “met many readers who fill this bill.”  All the readers I’ve met, together, fill the bill quite well. So, a fig for the fatuous fulminations of Eagleton, to use George Starbuck’s excellent phrase.  We exist, and the new forms that the Academy are taking in the 21st Century are rendering Eagleton’s assertions obsolete.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Comments on The Dispossessed

As usual, I’m a month or so behind the Mythgard Academy.  Had I been present at the sessions, or had I an ansible that could reach back in time with a text message, these are the things I would have said about The Dispossessed.  No overarching theme, just three disconnected observations.

The Physicist at Work

This book has the best descriptions I’ve read of a theoretical physicist at work. I searched the Web for biographies of Ursula LeGuin to find out if she had any physicists in her family — no. She did this all with imagination, and it’s spectacular. I recognized myself in almost every line of those scenes.  Usually, works of fiction that deal with a subject I know about in real life are excruciating.  The only fictional scientists I can handle are the humorous ones: Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon; Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) from Real Genius (I know what you’re thinking, no, Laszlo was my college roommate).  But Shevek’s struggles with his work, and how it affects his relationships with other people, ring true.

Also, the way LeGuin describes Shevek’s original insight isn’t wrong.  There’s nothing there that’s obviously insane; were relativity one day to be falsified, the explanation might well sound like that.  Only exception is the paragraph that talks about “the interval” as the key insight.  Replacing the absolute position of objects in time and space with intervals as the fundamental description of a system is, in fact, the heart of special relativity.  But by that point I was too smitten to care.


I found myself yelling at my iPod whenever Corey referred to Annares as a communist society.  Anarres is anarchist (see it in the name?); Thu is the communist society.  The people of Anarres refer to citizens of less-evolved societies as “archists”, a collective term for capitalists and communists.  (If you want to hear more about anarchism, here you go.  It’s all Real Genius, all the time, here at Idiosophy.)  Anarres draws heavily from Marxism, but Communism was not much like what Marx had in mind.

Putting myself back in the mindset of the early 1970s, the Cold War is all over this book.  It’s all happening on Urras, though.  There weren’t any neutral observers to the Cold War, because nobody could be far enough from the bombs to be safe.  LeGuin is showing us what the USA (which I can hear inside “Nio Esseia”) would have looked like, if anyone could be neutral.

Vea, Siegfried, and Roy

Corey did a good job getting through the uncomfortable politics of Vea.  All through that disquisition, I found myself thinking of Siegfried and Roy.  Vea is in the same line of work as they:  There’s an awesomely powerful force around, and by making a public show of dominating it, you gain wealth and status.  In Urras, that force is the patriarchy.

Vea didn’t passively accept dominance, she figured out how to manipulate it and turn it to her own ends.  Because she was so good at it, she became wealthy, popular, and influential. However, when you’re playing that game, you have to be perfect.  One mistake, and it all blows up in your face.  When Roy Horn got bitten by a tiger, his career was over.  He was lucky to escape with his life and his fortune mostly intact.  Vea got off easy, by comparison, with just a dry-cleaning bill and (one presumes) a case of the shakes in her room after all the guests had gone.

Update:  Brad DeLong, to whom I have referred readers before, was posting a discussion of “communism and related issues” on his blog as I typed this.  The Dispossessed features prominently.  As does an interesting discussion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which TIL comes from the Acts of the Apostles.

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.




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