A physicist loose among the liberal arts

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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!

I ate verbs

Brenton Dickieson (whose name my autocorrect fights with all its strength) made his way through John Calvin’s Institution of Christian Religion.  A formidable accomplishment (944 pages!), but such are the labors of the theologian.  It’s the best way to teach them perseverance and humility, since they never have to collimate optics in the laboratory.

"Ate" as a suffixAt one point, Brent vouchsafed that next time through, he will read a modern translation that is free from “all those obscure -ate verbs we lost long ago in verb form (like arrogate, abominate, irradiate, obviate, vitiate, actuate, inculcate, supplicate, promulgate, propitiate, intimate, abrogate, expiate, execrate, extenuate, expostulate, derogate, vacillate, and, of course, predestinate).”

These verbs are far from lost!  Nuclear physicists irradiate many things. (Only doing it unintentionally is frowned upon.)  In engineering documents I have frequently used “actuate”, “abrogate”, “inculcate”, “extenuate”, and “promulgate” and none of my reviewers has raised an eyebrow.  To abominate, execrate, or derogate things is frowned upon (deprecated?) in the modern, hyper-polite workplace, so I always have to change those.

My status as a liberal artisan is known and indulged so I can use “obviate” and “vitiate” with only a remark en passant from the editor about not using too many “Joe-words”. “Vacillate” is the mot juste for dealing with recalcitrant bureaucrats. And of course I challenge anyone to spend an hour among engineers without observing any behavior for which “arrogate” is the only possible verb.

All told, of Brent’s 19 lost verbs, I use 12 regularly and get away with 9.  I hope that this effort to enumerate them may mitigate his dismay, in part.

One time ignorance was bliss

Venus cloud tops

Hubble Space Telescope

Tom Hillman has spoiled us with another essay, this time on the changing role of the Silmarils in Tolkien’s Legendarium.  I’d like to add another contrasting pair.  I seem to be on a protracted campaign of sympathy for the devil these days, of which this is another whistle-stop.

Here’s Ungoliant’s attitude toward the Silmarils in the First Age:

‘Dost thou desire all the world for thy belly? I did not vow to give thee that. I am its Lord.’
‘Not so much,’ said Ungoliant. ‘But thou hast a great treasure from Formenos; I will have all that. Yea, with both hands thou shalt give it.’
Then perforce Morgoth surrendered to her the gems that he bore with him, one by one and grudgingly; and she devoured them, and their beauty perished from the world. Huger and darker yet grew Ungoliant, but her lust was unsated. ‘With one hand thou givest,’ she said; ‘with the left only. Open thy right hand.’
In his right hand Morgoth held close the Silmarils…

Quenta Silmarillion, IX

And here’s the attitude of her daughter, at the end of the Third Age:

As if [Sam’s] indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back beating the air with her forelegs, her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony.

LotR, IV,x

It’s a good thing that Sam had never read the Quenta Silmarillion. A hero of greater lore (Bilbo?) might have recognized Shelob, remembered her mother’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils, and concluded that showing her the Light was the worst thing he could do. Après Thomas Gray, in that situation it would have been folly to be Wise.

Venus and crescent moon over Tenerife observatory

Venus and crescent moon from Tenerife


Thomas Cahill relates (p. 160) that the account of the “Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Leinster is followed by a scribal addition in Latin, which is one of the finest texts it has been my privilege to encounter.

I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some are poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the delectation of idiots.

My boss won’t let me put that on any of my technical reports, so I am adopting it here as the official disclaimer of Idiosophy.

Works Consulted

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor Books, 1995.

A Narrow Escape from Theory

An interesting convergence of material in the Tolkien blogosphere lately.

Stephen Winter started us off with an excellent trio of posts about the scent of athelas in the Houses of Healing:
Tom Hillman collected these three posts with approbation.
Olga added a guest post at Stephen’s joint:

Shawn Marchese at “The Prancing Pony” ponders what elves must smell like
And last, my little squib , which is high enough to be visible only because all those other weightier essays were sitting on the other end of the see-saw, so my end rose. [1]

Because I have just survived a course on literary theory, I can see that the world has been spared from an outbreak of Newest Criticism by sheer luck. After all, the world has endured (says Wikipedia) historical and and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, normal feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism. To which our lecturers added performance theory, queer theory, native-american theory, and even oceanic theory.

None of us is (currently) a college professor, else we’d have beefed up our essays with citations, peer-reviewed each others’ work and approved it for publication, and now we’d be the founders of Olfactory Theory.

Works cited

[1] Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister, 1947. Idiosophers can pad reference lists as well as anyone.

RIP Harry Mathews

While I was checking references for my previous post, I discovered that Harry Mathews, “the first American member of Oulipo after Marcel Duchamp,” died in January at the age of 86. In memoriam, one of his limericks from “The Poet’s Eye”. The ends of the lines are supposed to look like rhymes, but not actually be rhymes. It’s harder than it looks. Sounds. Whichever.

“Bastille Day”
For this best of all army parades
I obtained a seat in the façades
And the tears brought an ache
To my graying moustache
As I heard the tanks rumbling in Hades.

Was C. S. Lewis the Father of Potential Literature?

Oulipo is the “Workshop of Potential Literature”, a group of French (with usually one token American) writers and mathematicians who experiment with new ways to write. Their most famous examples are when they set themselves seemingly arbitrary constraints, as in Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, where he tells the same dumb story 100 different ways, or Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, a 300-page novel written without using the letter “e”. (The English translation doesn’t use “e” either, which is just as remarkable, especially when I noticed that one of the characters is Jewish.) Book cover Oulipo LaboratoryIt seems like pointless whimsy, until the readers realize that they’re now pondering why sonnets have fourteen lines, and then notice that all literature has apparently arbitrary constraints in it.  I’ve been a fan of Oulipo ever since Michael Dirda tipped me off to their existence in a review in the Washington Post  (reprinted here).

So it hit me with a small shock (as if I’d forgotten to open the circuit breaker before replacing an outlet) when I read, “Whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature.” in C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. That book’s as old as I am; I’d never seen the phrase “potential literature” so long ago. Did CSL coin it? Better yet, it’s at the beginning of Chapter XI, which is entitled “The Experiment”.  There is nothing more Oulipian than a literary experiment.  (In fact, it’s a great disappointment to me that literary theory has nothing to do with literary experiment.  Shouldn’t one validate the other?)

The English phrase “potential literature” isn’t used enough to register on Google N-grams, but the French “littérature potentielle” is.  The N-gram frequency chart jumps off of zero in 1964: just the right amount of time for Lewis’s book to make it across the Channel, sink into people’s memories, and re-emerge in publication in France.

Is Lewis the founder of Potential Literature?  It’s certainly possible.  The literary experimenters who make up Oulipo are fond of science fiction.  (Hari Seldon is a saint on the ‘pataphysical calendar.)  It strains credibility to think that none of this group who are so interested in literary experiments read a book with that title.

I can’t find any overt admission of the link.  I did, however, find a literary blogger who wrote about C.S. Lewis and Oulipo on successive days, which convinced Google that I wanted to know about it. (I did. Thanks, Larry & Sergei!)

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1961. Electronic edition via iBooks.

Perec, Georges, A Void. Gilbert Adair, trans., London: Harvill Press, 1995.

Perec, Georges, La Disparition.  Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

Queneau, Raymond, Exercices de style. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1947.

The meaning of “Hwæt”

Elaine Treharne from Stanford is tweeting The Dream of the Rood, because that is the kind of thing she does.  I thought I’d better find out something about the poem, so I headed over to the Fount of All Knowledge to read up.

Hwaet from "Dream of the Rood"There, at the beginning of the poem, is the familiar “hwæt”, and with the the clarity that comes from being at the bottom of my first mug of tea, I suddenly knew how to translate that word.  It means:

<!DOCTYPE html-ms>
<HTML lang="ang">

This seems like an obvious web-nerd concept, but the three biggest search engines agree that they can’t find it out there, so I’m writing it down here. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that  there’s an ISO-639 language code for Anglo-Saxon. (Middle English is “enm”.) No one has established an SGML document type definition for parchment manuscripts, perhaps due to the shortage of monks, so I had to invent that one.

Gargantua on Drinking

Doré's Gargantua

Gargantua, by Gustave Doré

Today is Whanne that Aprille Day on Twitter, when we celebrate old languages.

Here’s my contribution, from Gargantua, Book 1, Chapter 5, by François Rabelais.

An almost-Socratic dialogue on drinking, law, mortality, and sports physiology.  Or maybe it’s more of a symposium.


— Qui feut premier, soif ou beuverye?
— Soif. Car qui eust beu sans soif durant le temps d’innocence?
— Beuverye. Car privatio praesupponit habitum. Je suis Clerc. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— Nous aultres innocens ne beuvons que trop sans soif.
— Non moy, pecheur, sans soif. Et si non presente, pour le moins future, la prevenent comme entendez. Je boy pour la soif advenir. Je boy eternellemeut, ce m’est eternité de beuverye, et beuverye de éternité.
— Chantons, beuvons un motet.
— Entonnons!
— Où est mon entonnoir?
— Quoy ! Je ne boy que par procuration !
— Mouillez-vous pour seicher, ou vous seichez pour mouiller?
— Je n’entens poinct la theoricque; de la praticque je me ayde quelque peu.
— Haste!
— Je mouille, je humecte, je boy. Et tout de peur de mourir.
— Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais.
— Si je ne boy, je suys à sec. Me voylà mort.

I own a strange old volume of Rabelais in English translation, which seems to be samizdat to get around the old Comstock laws. It translates that passage this way:

Which was first, thirst or drinking?  Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst?  Nay, sir, it was drinking, for privatio presupponit habitum. I am learned, you see. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum! We poor innocents* drink but too much without thirst. Not I, truly, who am a sinner, for I never drink without thirst, either present of future, to prevent it (as you know) I drink for the thirst to come; I drink eternally, this is to me an eternity of drinking and drinking of an eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, now for a catch, dust it away, where is my nogging? What, it seems I do not drink but by proxy. Do you wet yourself to dry, or do you dry to wet yourself? Pish, I understand not the rhetoric, (the theoric I should say), but I help my self somewhat by the practice.
Enough! I sup, I wet, I humect, I moisten my gullet, I drink and all for fear of dying. Drink always, and you shall never die. If I drink not, I run aground, and I die.

* These words bear allusion to what is said of some innocent people who are tortured with water forced down their throats to make them confess.

Here is my translation:
— Which came first, drinking or thirst?
— Thirst, for back in the days of innocence, who’d have drunk without being thirsty?
— Drinking, because privatio presupponit habitum. Arguments in Latin always win. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— We innocents never drink too much, unless we are thirsty.
— Not me either, and I’m a sinner. Maybe I don’t have a thirst right now, but I drink as a preventative. I drink against the thirst to come. I drink eternally, because through an eternity of drinking, I drink in all eternity.
— Let’s sing and drink a motet!
— Let’s intone in tons!
— Where’s my ton-kard?
— What are you talking about? I only drink by proxy.
— Do you wet yourself to dry out, or dry yourself out to get wet?
— I don’t understand anything about theory, and I don’t have much use for practice.
— Enough!
— I wet, I humidify, I drink, and all from fear of dying.
— Well, keep drinking forever, and you’ll never die.
— If I stop drinking, I’ll be all tapped out.* And that’s as good as dead.

creepy figure

Why sports physiology?  Because the sinner’s philosophy is what all coaches say now – start drinking before you get thirsty.  Renaissance French rules, avant la lettre, if you will.

* A regret: English doesn’t have a slang term for “broke” that overlaps with slang for “sober”, so I couldn’t translate that last pun correctly.  This is a shameful lacuna in my mother tongue.

Works Cited

Rabelais, F., La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua. Françoise Joukovsky, ed.  Paris, Flammarion, 1993.

Rabelais, F.,  The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations. Privately printed, who knows when or where.

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