THE FIRE SEEKERS:
Some Notes on Fact and Fiction
Congratulations! You've discovered the longer, nerdier version of the notes that appear in The Fire Seekers. (I already posted a few notes from Ghosts in the Machine on my blog at Medium; the rest will be available as soon as it's published.)
Allow me to repeat my suggestion from the book: rather than reading through this from beginning to end, browse the headers and dip into whatever looks interesting.
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Rongorongo and Rapa Nui
Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen discovered Paasch-Eyland (Easter Island) on Easter Sunday 1722—hence the name. The supposedly ‘original’ Polynesian name, Rapa Nui, was probably made up more than a century after this; we don't know what the island was called before European discovery.
The strange and beautiful script found there, Rongorongo, remains an enigma. But we do know a couple of seriously odd things about it. First, it only existed as a written script for a short time, at most 1350-1860 but maybe only 1650-1860. Second, it’s written in reverse boustrophedon. To read it, you start at the lowest line, read from left to right, then rotate the text through 180 degrees and read the next line up (which is now the next line down) also from left to right… then turn the tablet again. The word boustrophedon is a reference to plowing: it comes from the Greek for ‘ox’ and ‘to turn.’
By the way, in his book Extinct Languages, German linguist Johannes Friedrich mentions an ‘absurd’ attempt (by the Hungarian amateur linguist Guillaume de Hevesy, in the 1930s) to link the Rongorongo script from Rapa Nui with the equally mysterious Indus Valley script discovered in the 1920s at Mohenjo-Daro, the center of the vanished ‘Harappan’ civilization in what is now Pakistan. “Only a supernatural explanation” could make sense of it as anything but coincidence, he says, and he has a point. The Easter Island glyphs were carved by a tiny, isolated community on almost exactly the opposite side of the globe from Mohenjo-Daro. Plus there’s the matter of time: the Indus Valley civilization vanished almost 4,000 years ago, and was unknown until the early twentieth century; Rongorongo was used for just a few centuries, ending in the nineteenth. It’s hard to imagine two human communities less likely to have had anything to do with each other. Yet de Hevesy’s list of ‘twin’ glyphs is amazing…
This is one of several languages associated with the kingdom of Elam, which existed around the northeast end of the Persian Gulf from about 2700 to 540 BCE. There are actually three scripts associated with Elam, and despite the names they are probably three totally unrelated languages: Proto-Elamite from about 3000 BCE; Old (or ‘Linear’) Elamite, from about 800 years later; and Elamite cuneiform; from about 800 years after that. Proto-Elamite is still completely undeciphered. The Elamites, like the Mesopotamians, were great builders of ziggurats; the most famous Elamite structure is Chogha Zanbil, near the Iraqi border in Iran.
The Bronze Age Collapse
The BAC was a real event that saw the partial or total destruction of Ugarit, Troy, Tarsus, Knossos, Aleppo, Byblos, Ashkelon, Paphos, Carchemish, Hattusa, and Mycenae, among other cities. Theories include a massive drought (some evidence there); a storm of earthquakes (surprisingly, ditto); a mysterious invasion by so-called Sea Peoples (much-quoted but both vague and doubtful). Also climate change, defeat of charioteers by guerrilla foot soldiers, and “general systems collapse” (which sounds to me a lot like “if we give it a name, it’ll sound like a theory”). Different experts are so keen to push the evidence for their favorite hunch that in reading the literature it’s hard to hang onto the essential point: nobody knows what happened.
Types of writing
A quick and dirty way to divide up writing systems is this: in logographic systems like Chinese, symbols stand for words; in syllabic systems, like Egyptian, symbols stand for syllables; in alphabetic systems, like English, symbols stand for phonemes or sounds. In reality it’s a lot more complicated. For one thing, Chinese, Maya and Egyptian are all, to different degrees, hybrids of logographic and syllabic systems. And even ‘alphabetic’ writing systems use logograms: consider the “English” expression $1 > 98¢, which uses nothing else.
Still, it’s broadly true that a highly logographic system like Chinese will have thousands of distinct characters, a mainly-syllabic system like Egyptian will have a hundred or more, and an alphabet will have anywhere from just over a dozen main symbols (Hawaiian) to fifty or sixty (Khmer, Sanskrit).
For more information and amazement, spend some time at the websites ethnologue.com and omniglot.com, which have all manner of cool stuff. On Omniglot, the list of pages just for languages beginning with ‘C’ starts: Cambodian, Canaanite, Cantonese, Cape Verdean Creole, Carian, Caroline Island Script, Carpathian Basin Rovas, Carrier, Catalan, Caucasian Albanian, Cayuga, Cebuano, Celtiberian, Central Sinama, Ch?-nôm, Chaha, Chakma, Cham, Chambeali, Chamorro, Cha’palaachi, Chavacano, Chechen, Cherokee…. Big world.
Making sense of the Phaistos Disk
(See what the Disk looks like here)
William says that “nothing else remotely like it has ever been found.” To be accurate, there is one object that seems to copy, very crudely, a few of the Phaistos symbols. The Arkalochori Axe was found (also on Crete) in 1934. Half a dozen of the fifteen symbols on its handle resemble Phaistos symbols—in the way that a four-year-old’s letters resemble writing. Most archaeologists think they were carved by someone who had seen Phaistos symbols but was not familiar with their meaning.
As for the structure of the Disk itself, Daniel expresses a simplified version of my own puzzlement. It is said, as if it’s just obvious, that the Phaistos Disk has 31 groups of symbols in a spiral on one side, and 30 groups in a spiral on the other. But it seems to me this is just obviously wrong, in two ways. First: as Daniel says, the shape is really an outer horseshoe with a separate inner spiral. Second: notice the two lines (one on each side) that look like a short string of beads, and notice that on one side (but not the other) there’s an extra ‘unbeaded’ line next to the beaded line. If that third line is a mistake – a slip of the stylus—then suddenly you have a pattern that makes much more sense: thirty groups on both sides, and each side divided into the 12-group outer horseshoe and the 18-group inner spiral, each spiral beginning with a single unique L-shaped group. Check it out and see what you think.
For a better understanding of the challenge the Disk presents to would-be decoders, imagine discovering a short fragment of English—say, the sentence “Some cats are black.” It’s composed of sixteen separate characters, but, because of repetition, only 11 (out of a possible 26) different signs or symbols. Based on all the languages we already know, linguists have come up with a formula for using a short sample to predict the total number of symbols in an unknown language: [characters^2 ÷ (characters - symbols)] – characters]. Try it with “Some cats are black”: [16^2 ÷ (16-11)] – 16 = 35. Not a brilliant estimate for the number of letters in the English alphabet, but then it’s from a very short sample. Try the formula on the last sentence instead: [94^2 ÷ (94-18)] – 94] = … getting pretty close.
Now look at the Phaistos Disk. It has 241 separate characters, but, because of repetition, just 45 (out of ???—we don’t know!) different symbols. The formula says the Phaistos language should have about [241^2 ÷ (241-45) – 241] symbols. That’s [(58,082 ÷ 196) – 45) = 55. In other words, there should be about 11 more signs in the language than get used on the Disk.
In a separate calculation, the linguist James Chadwick estimated that, for a language with n signs, you need at minimum a sample with about n^2 characters of text for any hope of deciphering it. If our last calculation is about right, that’s 55^2 (= 3,025) for the Phaistos language—more than a dozen Disks. But this could be a radical underestimate in the case of Phaistos, because it appears to be unrelated to any other known language. Based on these arguments, Chadwick was infuriated by the (legions of) people who kept (and still keep) claiming to have deciphered the Disk. He considered it a basic mark of amateurish ignorance not to understand that, with only one Disk, the task is essentially impossible.
A clear, fiery Cretan brandy distilled from the grape skins that are left over after making wine.
Humans and fire
The mastery of fire was crucial to human development—not because it kept our toes warm, but because it made cooking possible, and cooked food is a much, much more time- and energy-efficient way of getting all the calories that our outsized brains consume. The mainstream view is that humans mastered fire around 350,000 BCE, but there’s some evidence that the correct figure is at least a million years, perhaps closer to two million. The big book on this is Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire.
Can we store data in DNA?
Shortly after writing a draft of this book, I learned that a team at Harvard Medical School is working on how to do just that. It’s in the early stages, but DNA could provide astonishingly information density—and, unlike that flash drive you just put through the laundry, remain stable for 10,000 years.
William isn't referring to Jerry Yang’s internet company, but to the disgusting ape-like creatures (or disturbingly human-like apes) in the fourth part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Apparently the company’s name really is a direct reference to Gulliver, but you have to wonder whether any of the Sunnyvale geeks had actually read the book. A cursed race of unteachable, stinking, irrational, odious brutes? Really?
Uranium, thorium and a low-budget ray gun
I’ve given Bill Calder a fancied-up form of Optically Stimulated Luminescence (or Thermoluminescence) Dating. The idea is that radioactive impurities release electrons, some of which become trapped by the crystals in the clay. Heating above 500 degrees centigrade releases the electrons, so the original firing of the pottery effectively ‘zeroes’ the accumulation at the instant of the object’s ‘birth.’ When the sample is re-heated, it’s possible to measure how many new electrons have accumulated since. Can you really do it through a glass museum case, with a hand-held laser and a phone app? No—not yet.
Other important dating technologies include:
Tutankhamun, the Minoans, and Stonehenge
The Minoans flourished as a distinct culture on Crete from about 2600-1200 BCE, and the layer in which the Disk was found at Phaistos dates from around 1600 BCE. Tutankhamun died in Egypt in 1327 BCE. Stonehenge—which I used to clamber over as a child, before it was fenced off because too many children were clambering over it—was built before the Minoan civilization even began, about 3000 BCE. See “Some Dates.”
L. Ron Hubbard
An American science-fiction writer who founded the ‘science of Dianetics’ and the Church of Scientology in 1950. Hubbard and his ‘church’ are real, but they could so easily have been invented by, oh say, a novelist interested in how you draw the line between a religion, a pop-psychology movement, and a clever scheme for making money.
Darwin, germs, and hand-washing
The image of Hayden C. Calder would have been a daguerreotype (in which the final image forms directly on a light-sensitive metal plate), not a photograph (in which a negative is used a as basis for printing). Louis Daguerre’s process was introduced to America from France in about 1840. The Swiss medical pioneer Ignaz Semmelweis first suggested in 1847 that doctors’ own lack of hygiene might be causing the puerperal fever that was killing so many of their patients; the idea deeply offended the medical profession, and was ridiculed. Darwin published On the Origin of Species, cracking the deep problem of how things in nature can look ‘perfectly designed’ without having a designer, in 1859. The ‘germ theory of disease’ was not widely accepted until the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 1870s.
The Torre Sur and “a big fat mile of nothing”
OK, a bit of an exaggeration. The Torre Sur is over a mile and a half tall, but only from sea level, and the longest vertical face on it is maybe half that. The nearest you can get to a mile-long vertical fall, anywhere in the world, is probably on Great Trango Tower in Pakistan. Look it up; if you suffer from vertigo, keep a plastic bag handy.
[CORRECTION: The longest vertical fall anywhere on Earth is probably not Great Trango Tower but Mount Thor, on Baffin Island, a mountain the shape of a shark's fin. It doesn't look real!]
“Not really an atheist atheist”
Most people think they know what an atheist is, but it’s not as simple as it looks.
Socrates (See “Some Dates”) was accused of being an atheist in 399 BCE, but the outraged conservatives of Athens meant he was teaching false or non-traditional beliefs about the gods, not that he didn’t believe the gods existed. Early Christians were described as atheists by the Romans, for the same reason. Ditto the great seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes; an interesting wrinkle, in the context of William Calder’s ideas (and Morag Chen’s), is that Hobbes was a philosophical materialist—his shocking idea was that the immaterial doesn’t exist, and so God, like everything else, must be material rather than supernatural.
Modern atheists like Richard Dawkins usually talk as if they think that we can prove God doesn’t exist, and that ‘I know God doesn’t exist’ is the meaning of the term. But you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist unless you can first say what it is, and one frustrating thing about religious belief is that even within the same religion different believers give widely varying and incompatible descriptions of what sort of entity God is. (Male, female, or neither? Single, double, triple or even more plural? Really really powerful—and, say, battling Satan for control of the universe—or omnipotent, and therefore presumably not needing to battle anyone about anything? Merely wise, or omniscient? Benevolent or indifferent? Forgiving or vindictive? Inhabits a place called heaven, or is present everywhere at all times? Sent his son to us, or just isn’t the kind of being that has offspring? Knows the future? Listens to prayers? Kills people who build tall towers? We could go on…) So it’s not clear what the atheist has to disprove, or how to do it. And even if we stick with a very minimal definition—say, “God is a word we use to label whatever the thing is that created or is the ultimate power behind our world”—it’s not clear how scientific evidence about what’s in our world could tell us anything about the likely existence or non-existence of such a being. However, this is not comforting news for religion, because theology is subject to the same limitation. (A creature that has lived its entire life inside a closed cardboard box can’t even tell that the thing it’s in is a box, much less make any useful inferences about who or what created it.)
In my view, it’s more useful to think of atheism as the claim that theologies are fake systems of knowledge. We may never know whether there is some kind of ultimate being ‘behind’ the universe, but anyway we have no reason to expect theologies (which is to say: religions) to be a reliable way of telling us anything about the nature of that being (or: those beings). You shouldn’t believe what any particular theology says about the nature of God, for exactly the same reason that you shouldn’t believe what I say about the committee of eighty-nine invisible pink hippopotami that run the universe from a couch in my attic: there’s no evidence—or nothing that in any other field of inquiry would count as evidence—either for or against them. And, since there are infinitely many things that might exist, though we have no evidence about them (to mention just ninety-one: any particular conception of God, the Blueberry Muffin at the Beginning of Time, and those hippos in my attic), it’s hard to see how it makes sense to believe in any of them.
Historically, this has been roughly the view of a lot of people who didn’t come right out and call themselves atheists: the philosophers Hobbes and Hume, for example, probably Spinoza too, and even perhaps the avowedly Christian Immanuel Kant, who argued for very strict limits on what we can possibly know outside our direct sense experience. It’s also not far from the view of the Christian Non-Realist movement, associated with the writings of the philosopher of religion (and priest) Don Cupitt.
The island of Iona
You can find it off the west coast of Scotland, near Oban. It was an important monastic and scholarly center in the early Middle Ages—and it is beautiful and hard to get to. I visited it when I was 14, and remember the occasion all too clearly. The ferry from Mull was tiny. An exceptionally heavy swell was coming south down the sound. When my parents and I finally set foot on Iona, soaked to the skin, we were quite surprised to be alive.
The Dakar Rally
A premier off-road endurance race that originally ran from Paris to Dakar in Senegal. It now takes place in various locations, usually in South America.
Muon scanning is a very cool idea dreamed up to check cargo containers for contraband and bombs. Also known as Cosmic Ray Tomography, it doesn’t quite exist yet in any practical sense, but we’ll get there—and soon after we do, it will be adapted for medical scanning. Then, instead of making pictures by shooting X-rays through you, or using huge MRI magnets to pat down your atomic nuclei, a muon scanner will creates images of your insides using naturally occurring muons—particles a bit like electrons that originate in deep space and are passing through your body all the time anyway.
Friedrich Nietzsche lived in an age that was even more deeply impressed by the excellence of ‘Man’ (i.e. the human species) than we are today. He wasn’t so impressed—and in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885) he argued that humans as we currently understand them will be ‘surpassed’ by ‘Übermenschen’— overmen, or supermen. These are not flying guys in capes; nor are they Nazi-style tyrants. Nietzsche thinks of them as exceptional people whose self-confidence, creativity and courage will help humanity break free from what he sees as the suffocating constraints of guilt and self-loathing imposed on us by Christian morality.
Uncontacted indigenous groups
Around the world there are probably about a hundred groups of uncontacted people—those who have either totally avoided contact with the outside world or actively resisted it. They’re concentrated in just three areas: Indonesian Papua (what used to be known as Irian Jaya); the Sentinel and Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean; and the Amazon, especially the far western Amazon on the border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. To find out more, visit www.uncontactedtribes.org and www.survivalinternational.org/tribes.
“Ni v pizdu”
I’m not going to translate this. Imagine starting with the expression ‘a load of crap,’ and then turning the Crudeness dial all the way up to Unprintable.
Strictly speaking, if you float south down the Euphrates from Fallujah you won’t get to Babylon—the ancient city is on the ‘Hillah arm’ of the river, not the main channel.
Pronouncing “Babel,” translating “Bab-ilani,” and building ziggurats
I’m British, so I grew up saying BAY-bl (rhymes with fable). Most Americans are used to BABB-l (rhymes with rabble). British dictionaries go for the first pronunciation; most American dictionaries give both. Other languages have other variations. ‘Confusion of tongues’ indeed: apparently Brad Pitt, star of the 2007 movie Babel, said that nobody on set could agree how to pronounce it. Maybe we could all agree on a ‘correct’ pronunciation if we knew how the Akkadians or Babylonians pronounced “bab-ilani.” We don’t, so pronounce it however you like.
The word Bab-ilani actually comes from Akkadian, the earlier language (and civilization) out of which Babylonian developed. The even earlier (Sumerian) name for the place was Etemenanki, which has a very similar meaning. The usual translation of Etemenanki is “the house of the foundation of heaven and earth,” which has the distinct disadvantage of not making sense. A better stab at the meaning might be something like “the place between heaven and earth.”
The most magnificent version of the ziggurat at Babylon—the one that best fits Daniel’s description—was finished around 600 BCE by King Nebuchadnesar II. Just two centuries later, only a ruin remained. Alexander the Great pulled that down, planned to rebuild yet again, then got distracted by a sudden itch to invade India. He did get back to Babylon—but only for long enough to be poisoned by one of his own generals. The “Tower of Babel” never rose again.
The origin of the Book of Genesis
Daniel gives just the one-sentence version of a complicated and controversial history. But most scholars seem to think that most of Genesis, including the Babel story, was written around 550 BCE, during the Babylonian Exile (when many Jews were deported to Babylon, after the Babylonians conquered Judah). Details aside, since so many people are taught that the Bible is in some literal sense the word of God (or are simply taught nothing about its origin at all), it seems worth pointing out that it was at all events written down by particular human beings in a particular place, and at a particular and fairly well-defined time.
Noah, Utna-pish-tim, and all the others
The Nineveh tablets are from about 1200 BCE. The “Noah Version” of the story was first written down in roughly 600 BCE, or possibly as early as 800 BCE. So Utna-pish-tim precedes Noah by at least as much as Shakespeare precedes us. The oldest Sumerian flood narrative, featuring Zuisudra, goes back at least another five hundred years before that.
George Smith, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Victorian reaction
‘Totally appalled’ is a bit unfair, but ‘fascinated’ for sure. When George Smith presented his findings to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, on December 3rd 1872, there was a sell-out crowd. One of the people who showed up to listen was the Prime Minister himself, William Ewart Gladstone.
Akkad and Akkadian cuneiform
Cuneiform (‘wedge-shaped’) writing was developed by the Sumerians well before 3000 BCE, and later adapted for many other languages, including Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Elamite, and Old Persian. Because each symbol is a pattern of wedge-shaped dents, it’s ideally suited to writing with a stylus in wet clay.
I’ve stretched the dates for Akkadian a bit, permitting myself the assumption that Akkad survived (and was then destroyed) later than the existing evidence shows: most surviving Old Akkadian writing dates from roughly 2340 to 2160 BCE. (See “Some Dates.”)
Akkad, the great capital of Sargon’s Mesopotamian Empire, is mentioned in the Bible, and is known to have been somewhere in Mesopotamia and not far from Babylon. Most archaeologists think it was either to the east of Babylon, at or near Kish, or further north, at the confluence of the Tigris and Diyala rivers near modern Baghdad. But it has never been found.
Why did God destroy the Tower?
People often think the Babel story is all about the height of the Tower: God has a migraine because he thinks we are threatening to climb up, like Jack on his beanstalk, and invade heaven itself.
This idea is in some versions of the story. For instance the so-called Book of Jubilees (written c. 200-150 BCE, but excluded from the Bible of the Roman Catholic and other western churches) assumes that Hebrew was the divine language—lost after Babel, then given back to Abraham by the angels—and says:
“'Behold the children of men have become evil through the wicked purpose of building for themselves a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.’ For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days they built the city and the tower, saying, 'Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.' And they began to build… And they built it: forty and three years were they building it… And the Lord our God said unto us: Behold, they are one people, and (this) they begin to do, and now nothing will be withholden from them. Go to, let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech, and they may be dispersed into cities and nations, and one purpose will no longer abide with them till the day of judgment.' And the Lord descended, and we descended with him to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And he confounded their language, and they no longer understood one another's speech, and they ceased then to build the city and the tower. For this reason the whole land of Shinar is called Babel, because the Lord did there confound all the language of the children of men, and from thence they were dispersed into their cities, each according to his language and his nation. And the Lord sent a mighty wind against the tower and overthrew it upon the earth, and behold it was between Asshur and Babylon in the land of Shinar, and they called its name 'Overthrow.'”
In the Bible as we know it, most of this is missing. All we get from Genesis 11:6 is: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” In modern English: “They’ve understood how powerful their unity makes them, and now they’ll stop at nothing.” It’s not clear from this exactly what the divine worry about Babel really is. You might ask: What’s so bad about being united and building cities? The Bible does not answer that question.
Another Jewish tradition, recorded in the Sarajevo Haggadah, is perhaps more interesting than either Jubilees or the Bible: it says that God doesn’t care about the Tower itself, or what it implies about what the builders might do next. Rather, he’s horrified that the builders are obsessed with the project to the exclusion of ordinary decency: they care more when a brick falls and is broken than when a worker falls and dies. Unlike the Bible, this does at least give us a God whose rage is ethically intelligible.
Obscenity and broadcasting
For an amusing account of our irrational attitudes to obscenity, especially as they relate to free speech, I recommend Chapter 7 of Stephen Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, ‘The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.’
“The same idea comes up all over the world in different forms”
In the case of ‘language origin’ myths, at least, there are many, many examples with remarkable similarities, often including angry gods.
In Aztec mythology there’s a flood and only one couple survives; they repopulate the earth, but each child has a different language. According to the Greeks, Zeus destroys the world with a flood, and only two people, Deucalion and Pyrrha, survive. Also in Greek myth, Zeus rules over a single language until Hermes brings multiple ones and thus discord. There’s an Australian Aboriginal myth that involves a goddess starting the whole mess by giving each of her children a different language as a toy. In many cultures, there’s a god who speaks either one original language, or all languages.
In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond describes a myth from New Guinea involving a murderer who escapes into a tree with his relatives. When the relatives of his victim haul down the tree top using vines, the vines snap, and everyone in the tree is flung far and wide. When they land, they set up separate communities that have mutually unintelligible languages.
According to Andrew Dickinson White’s A History of the Warfare Between Science and Theology, there’s a Hindu story that neatly combines Babel and Eden. A tree grows too close to heaven and the creator-god Brahma punishes it by turning it into many little trees; they are not big enough to shade all the people, who therefore divide into separate groups and come to have different languages.
The rediscovery of Troy
The Iliad, Homer’s ancient epic about the siege of Troy, was widely believed to be a true story, well into the Middle Ages. It was only later that people started to get more “realistic,” and dismiss it all as mythical. It took the archaeologists Charles Maclaren and Heinrich Schliemann, among others, to get us back to the more improbable, more romantic truth.
Schliemann, by the way, named his own children Andromache and Agamemnon, which does rather suggest that the Mediterranean sun cooked his brain. But if we had a time machine, I’d bet you a thousand bucks most of the characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey really existed.
Noah’s flood and the Black Sea theory
Geologists are pretty clear that a catastrophic flood around 7,500 – 5,500 BCE greatly increased the Black Sea’s size: the Mediterranean broke through a narrow gap, spilling hundreds of cubic miles of seawater into what had been a lake. This may well have something to do with some flood mythology. But geologists disagree about whether this event really happened suddenly or not, and anyway it’s a poor source for Noah’s story. Most of the flooding happened in the north, near Odessa in modern Ukraine. Mount Ararat is 200 miles southeast of the Black Sea, in an area that didn’t flood at all.
At about the same time, rising sea levels drowned an inhabited area almost as big as the UK, now known to archaeologists as Doggerland; it lies under the North Sea between England and Denmark.
The perhaps-not-mythical unicorn
In the interview, Morag is interrupted just as she’s about to discuss the theory that the myth of the unicorn comes from actual human contact with Elasmotherium, a one-horned rhino that went extinct perhaps 15,000 years ago. It appears to be depicted in cave paintings, for instance at Rouffignac in France. Elasmotherium doesn’t look a whole lot like a modern “unicorn,” but stories do get garbled over 15,000 years.
Plato, mathematics, and the soul
Plato was impressed by the spooky power of mathematics, and his big philosophical idea is essentially the one that Iona, like most mathematicians, finds attractive. Maybe the world we experience through our senses isn’t the real world at all, but rather a kind of illusion, or at best a mere shadow cast by the real real world—a realm hidden behind or beneath or beyond our experience that we can approach only through pure reason.
The myth of the cave, which puts this idea in a nutshell, is in Book One of Plato’s Republic. Neoplatonism, which arose around six hundred years later, turns this into a much more explicitly religious doctrine about the pure soul escaping the corrupting prison of the body to return to its origin—God.
Some modern thinkers who seem to take a form of (mathematical) Platonism very seriously include the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, the physicist Eugene Wigner (whose paper ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’ is a famous contribution to the subject), and the cosmologist Max Tegmark. They all tend to view mathematical objects as real entities that exist independently of us and that are discovered by doing math.
But notice: it’s possible to be a Platonist about numbers and still think that gods, ghosts and immortal souls are all flim-flam.
“A stuffed giraffe called Lamarck”
Joke. Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was responsible for the pre-Darwinian idea that animals evolve by inheriting ‘acquired characteristics’; thus, giraffes stretch their necks to get food, and giraffes with long necks give birth to offspring with long necks. This isn’t true, but it isn’t stupid either, and in fact Darwin himself didn’t wholly reject Lamarck’s theory. He just thought it was less important than the mechanism he proposed, natural selection.
Some recent research suggests that Lamarck may have been doubly wrong about giraffes, actually; it may be that what drove the evolution of long necks was not food competition at all, but what Darwin and Wallace called “sexual selection”—rather like peacock’s feathers or stags’ antlers. In that case, the ability to eat from tall trees isn’t why they have the long necks at all; it’s just a side-effect.
On the other hand, genetic orthodoxy (what’s sometimes called the neo-Darwinian synthesis) is under pressure from work indicating that some “epigenetic effects” can be inherited. That is, environmental factors can lead to differences in the way a particular gene functions, and these differences can sometimes be inherited even when the underlying gene is unchanged. Thus, famously: children born to mothers who survived the Dutch Famine of 1944 had high rates of certain conditions associated with malnutrition—but, a generation later, so did their children, despite excellent nutrition.
Jean Baptiste must be laughing now, because biologists are calling the rise of epigenetics neo-Lamarckism.
Cicero at Rhodes
Cicero became one of the most influential writers and statesmen of all time, but he was only 26 in 80 BCE, and just starting out as a lawyer. When an enemy of the dictator Sulla was dragged into court and framed for the death of his own father, Cicero successfully defended him. Sulla’s anger made Cicero fear for his own safety, and he went into a two-year self-imposed exile, visiting Athens, Asia Minor (Turkey), and then Rhodes. The connection I make later between his shopping habits, his return home, and an ancient shipwreck, seems intriguingly plausible given the dates and the geography, but there’s no other evidence for it.
The “guy named Posidonius,” who Cicero met and studied with at Rhodes, was in fact one of the most celebrated geniuses of the entire ancient world, spoken of in the same breath as Aristotle. He wrote voluminously on almost every subject, and also travelled widely—so the project of collecting diskoi from all over the known world, which I ascribe to him here, is not so implausible. Alas, nearly all his writings are lost, so most people have never heard of him.
By the way, Cicero had a long and outstandingly brilliant career, but in the end he fell foul of another dictatorial thug. In 43 BCE, after a series of speeches against Mark Anthony, he tried to slip away from Italy again, but was murdered somewhere between his villa and the docks. According to one version, after he was captured Cicero stretched out his neck to make it clear he would not do anything so undignified as resist being killed, and his last words were “What you do is not proper. But at least kill me properly.” The assailants hacked off his head, and then (because of the speeches he had written criticizing Mark Anthony), also hacked off his hands; all three items were then nailed up for display in the Roman forum. In a further demonstration of Roman culture and refinement, Mark Anthony’s wife Fulvia took Cicero’s head down, spat on it, and stuck one of her hair pins through the great orator’s tongue.
William Henry Seward
Seward was Lincoln’s close friend and Secretary of State, and in his own right a brave and persistent opponent of slavery. He also negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The statue in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, which I walk past nearly every day, shows Seward with the 1867 Alaska treaty under his arm. The Wikipedia article on Seward originally claimed, plausibly, that the statue faces Alaska. My greatest contribution to human knowledge so far has been to correct this; in fact he faces south, with Alaska somewhere over his right shoulder.
Pronounced RIN-doll, and also called AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), this is a widely-used symmetric key algorithm for high-level encryption. But I only pretend to understand it, so please look it up and try for yourself.
Star Trek and plastic foreheads
Before you join in the scoffing—which I’ve been doing for years—check out Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution, in which he argues (contra Stephen Jay Gould and most biologists) that if complex life evolved independently on other planets it would probably look a lot like us. Maybe the Trekkie scenario is right after all. Live long, and get this superglue off my fingers.
Sherlock Holmes and the impossible
The famous line is “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” (The Sign of Four, 1890.)
Like many things Holmes says, this seems to impress a lot of people—but then a lot of people don’t stop to think. For Holmes to “eliminate the impossible” is for him to judge that some explanations on his list cannot be true. But how can he know this, when his own knowledge is finite and therefore the process by which he comes to such judgments must itself be fallible?
Here’s an infamous example of the problem. In 1835, the French philosopher Auguste Comte announced with great confidence that “we shall never be able by any means to study the chemical composition of stars.” (Savor that: never… by any means.) Must have sounded like a very safe bet, at the time, but German optical theorist Joseph Fraunhofer was already working on the process—stellar spectroscopy—that within a generation would allow us to do just that.
As this suggests, the “Comte problem” is really two separate problems for Sherlock. He’s wrong to think he can ever be confident that an option on his list is impossible. But he’s also wrong to think that what remains is a complete list: what about all the options that his lack of knowledge (or imagination) has caused him to exclude from the list in the first place?
Watson may seem stupid compared to Sherlock, but he’s mainly just weak-kneed. He should have fought back a bit harder against literature’s most successful intellectual bully.
Archimedes, “naked and roaring”
There’s no evidence for the famous story about him leaping out of the bath, but it’s irresistible in any of its several forms. According to the Roman writer Vitruvius, the king asked Archimedes to determine whether the new royal crown had been adulterated with silver, or was pure gold. Archimedes puzzled for a long time over how to do this, and the “eureka moment” was realizing that, because a crown of pure gold is denser, it will displace less water than an alloy crown of identical weight. Verdict: probably fiction. Galileo himself heard the story, and dismissed it on the grounds that the difference in volume would have been too small for Archimedes to measure. Others think Archimedes was merely noticing that any submerged object displaces a volume of liquid equal to its own volume. A third idea, which gets my vote, is that the “eureka moment” was really Archimedes discovering his great principle of buoyancy: not just that an object displaces its own volume, but that it is buoyed upwards by a force equal to the weight of the liquid it displaces.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter which version is true: any way you look at it, Archimedes was so far ahead of everyone else that he was probably from another planet.
“Lowered down to us from heaven”
That kingship—the very notion of submitting to the authority of a ruler—was a “gift” from the gods, is an idea from a real source, the Sumerian King List, a document that survives in various This is an idea from a real source, the Sumerian King List, a document that survives in various forms and fragments, notably on the cuneiform Weld-Blundell Prism in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. The rulers of Sumer liked to think of themselves as heirs to a long, long tradition: before the Flood, there were allegedly eight kings, and they ruled for about 20,000 to 40,000 years each. After that, the royal diet must have gone bad: typical post-Flood kings are listed as reigning, like Gilgamesh, for a mere century or two each.
The idea of kingship (and religious and moral leadership) as a gift from God is amazingly popular. Yahweh, the God of the Jews, gave the law to Moses. Marduk, the God of the Babylonians, gave the Code of Laws to Hammurabi. The gods of the Egyptians gave divinely sanctioned kingship to the Pharaohs. The Catholic Pope and his clergy have been seen as God’s appointed spiritual ‘rulers.’ And every king in every country in medieval Europe, right up into the seventeenth century, either believed or claimed to believe that he was the direct representative of God on earth, ruling by what was called Divine Right.
That’s not just a metaphor: for several thousand years, it has been a dominant false theory about how the world works.
One of the last rulers to defend this idea directly was James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), in his books The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599). The idea is essentially that God chooses rulers, whose duty is to rule in His name. Clearly anyone who doesn’t like the system—anyone who exhibits their arrogance and impiety by sedition—that is, questioning royal authority—is an agent of the devil, and should have his bowels removed very slowly in public with a meat hook. No surprise that powerful people took to this idea with such enthusiasm. These days we dismiss it as nonsense—but what if all those rulers were, in a sense, right? What if not just “kingship,” but the whole idea of coming together to build cities and live in hierarchies and practice religions under a central authority, was “handed down”—by someone or something?
“Some English literary heavy”
Dr. Samuel Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
The date of Atlantis
According to the version in Plato’s Critias, it all happened nine thousand years before Solon—but it has been suggested that Solon got his Egyptian wrong, and the priest really said ‘nine hundred.’ It needs to be nine hundred to a thousand, roughly, for my purposes—but that’s fine, since these dates all have pretty much the flavor of ‘like, dude, a really long time ago.’
Casaubon, “a character in a novel”
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. It’s on many people’s shortlist for Greatest Novel Ever Written In English. A great book about people doing all the wrong things with the best of intentions, it contains one of the simplest, wisest and most powerful of all prescriptions for happiness: “You must learn to love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, waiting for your play to begin.” (But let’s be realistic. Most people have to do work they can’t reasonably be expected to love, so they spend their lives looking over the edge of it—a rarely noticed, yet terrible and profoundly embarrassing fact about the way our entire civilization is organized.) “MDCCCLXXI” is 1871—the year Eliot began to publish the book in a serial version.
Casaubon is represented as trying to establish that all the world’s myths are corrupted fragments of the truth as revealed in the Christian Bible. So all myths had a common origin in the “true” story—an idea I have hijacked here for my own purposes.
Krakatoa, “a zit compared to Thera”
The destruction of Krakatoa in 1883 unleashed two or three cubic miles of rock and ash, triggered tsunamis that killed 36,000 people, made a noise that was heard as far away as Australia and the island of Réunion, and produced a shockwave that traveled seven times around the world. Thera’s eruption was thought to have been ‘only’ three or four times that big, until a study in 2006 raised the estimated size of the ejection to around 14 cubic miles. If that’s right, Thera was the third largest explosions in recorded history, beaten only by Tambora, Indonesia (1815) and Changbaishan, China (c. 1000).
The Antikythera wreck(s)
While I was planning, researching, and writing this book, several coincidences occurred that you probably won’t believe. The most amazing to me was this: in the summer of 2012, I decided for fictional purposes that there would turn out to be two ships (skaphe) at the Antikythera site, not just one; three or four months later, a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute led a new dive investigation at the site which indicated that… there may have been two ships, not just one. For photos of the 2012 dive, search ‘Return to Antikythera’ and look for the photo archive of The Guardian.
Eratosthenes and the size of the Earth
His calculation was based on reports that there was a deep well at the town of Syene (modern Aswan), in the bottom of which you could see the sun’s reflection at noon on the solstice. (In other words, the sun was directly overhead.) He also knew that the sun was about seven degrees off vertical at the same time where he lived, in Alexandria. After estimating the distance from Aswan to Alexandria, he concluded that the Earth must be about 25,000 miles in diameter. This staggeringly good estimate was partly due to accurate measurement, and partly due to luck: some of the errors in his data cancel each other out.
Posidonius of Rhodes (see above) tried to improve on this with a similar method that used the height of the star Canopus above the horizon at Rhodes and Alexandria. But this second estimate was much less accurate—about 18,000 miles, or only 70% of the correct value. It has been suggested that Posidonius’s connection with powerful people like Cicero caused his estimate to be taken more seriously, and that this in turn changed the course of history, helping to convince Columbus that he could sail (and had sailed) all the way to the “Indies.”
On the other hand, the idea that you could get to the Indies by sailing west—which goes all the way back to Aristotle’s On the Heavens—was familiar to Columbus (almost) directly from Eratosthenes, who was quoted to this effect by other writers such as Strabo. So the Genoese explorer was probably aware of Eratosthenes’s less optimistic estimate of the sailing distance.
The Antikythera Mechanism
The professional archaeologists brought many treasures from the Antikythera wreck to the surface, including a blue glass bowl that somehow, miraculously, spent almost two thousand years underwater without sustaining more than a few scratches. But the “mangled chunk of bronze” was so mangled that for a long time after the salvage operation it sat in a warehouse without anyone noticing that it might be unusual or interesting.
When they did notice, it appeared, absurdly, to be a mechanical clock, like something that belonged on the mantelpiece in a Victorian living room. It had wheels, hands, levers, dials, and over 30 interconnecting gears. After they had finished with the X-rays and reconstructions, it turned out to be the world’s first—or first known—analog computer. To the delight of the archaeo-historico-technical nerds, it even had a differential gear, capable of calculating instantly the difference between two other gear settings. The objects it most nearly resembled were certain clocks that the great Arab polymath al-Buruni, which were constructed over a thousand years later (and were centuries ahead of their time even then). It was, in short, either in the wrong millennium, and hence a gift to the “ancient aliens” crowd, or more plausibly, a refutation of everything we supposedly knew about the ancient Greeks and their level of technology. However, the Greek community on Sicily did have its own al-Buruni. His name was Archimedes.
Graviera and taramasalata
Graviera is a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. Taramasalata is a pinkish spread made from bread, olive oil and carp roe—and it gets my vote for single best Greek dish, unless possibly you offer me a really good piece of baklava.
A script I’ve never seen before ... Armenian
Armenian is an Indo-European language that was once written in cuneiform, like Akkadian and Babylonian. Most unusually, though, in the 4th Century CE the scholar Mesrop Mashtots developed from scratch an entirely new alphabetic system for Armenian, based on his knowledge of the Greek alphabet but with its own unique and beautiful script. You can see it at www.omniglot.com/writing/armenian.htm
Seeing in the Dark
It seemed appropriate to steal the title of this section from Timothy Ferris’s excellent book on the culture of amateur astronomy. Informative, lyrically beautiful science writing—read him.
John Dobson, one of the great eccentrics of modern astronomy, popularized cheap but powerful reflecting telescopes that amateurs can make at home. These ugly-looking ‘light buckets’ have brought the beauty of the deep sky (nebulae, star clusters, galaxies) to thousands of people. As a young man, Dobson was “a belligerent atheist”—but he also spent more than two decades living in a monastery. He died in January 2014, at the age of 98, just as I was finishing the book.