In praise of the codex


Charles Emmanuel Biset, Still life with Books, a Letter and a Tulip

The codex (book with pages) has been with us for about 2,000 years now. Because of advantages like rapid access to specific pages, it gradually replaced the older technology of the scroll:

Christians seem to have been early adopters of the codex technology. The oldest known fragment of the Christian New Testament, papyrus P52, dated to around the year 130, is a small fragment of a codex of the Gospel according to John (with parts of verses 18:31–33 on one side of the page, and parts of verses 18:37–38 on the other):

In 2010, Google estimated that the total number of published books had reached 130 million. At times it seems that e-books are taking over from the printed codex format, but there is a friendliness to the printed book that would make me sorry to see it go. I am not the only one.

Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, writes: “Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a marvelous machine – great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand.

How true that is!


I ♥ science books!


Disasters in science #3

Engineers have a moral obligation to take great care with safety-related issues. As Kipling says, “They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose. They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.


Blue Jeans and Culture

An earlier post touched on the concept of “cultural appropriation.” This label is often applied inappropriately, because the world is more interconnected than most people realise. It has been that way for longer than most people realise (for example, some 4,000 years ago, tin from England was being traded across the Mediterranean sea for use in making bronze). And ideas go back further than most people realise.

As Michael Crichton says in his excellent novel Timeline, “Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of the market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

Consider blue jeans, for example.

Blue jeans are dyed with indigotin, a chemical derived from the indigo plant, which has long been grown in India. But before someone says “cultural appropriation from India,” indigotin was traditionally derived in Europe from the woad plant (northern Britons painted their skins blue with woad). In China, a different plant was used. Essentially, the use of indigotin was a cultural universal. In Germany, where a culture of excellence in organic chemistry grew up during the 19th century, a practical method for making synthetic indigotin was developed at the BASF company in 1897, and the choice of plant became moot.


A cake of indigo dye (photo: David Stroe)

Blue jeans are made from denim, a fabric named after Nîmes in France. During the California gold rush, Levi Strauss, a Jewish-American businessman of German origin, teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Jewish-American tailor of Latvian origin, to make denim work clothing for miners. These blue jeans were strengthened by metal rivets – an idea due to Davis, patented in 1873.

So which culture produced blue jeans – Indian? French? German? Latvian? Jewish? American? One can only say that blue jeans were produced by human culture.


Illustration from the patent application


Disasters in science #2

This “meme” is intended to underscore the fact that engineers have a moral obligation to take great care with safety-related issues. As Kipling says, “It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.


Newton, gravity, and the apple


Isaac Newton and his apple (image: LadyofHats)

Among the numerous problems in this famous videoclip from South Africa (which I have previously mentioned) are some serious misunderstandings regarding Isaac Newton, gravity, and the apple story. According to William Stukeley (writing in 1726), “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees; only he [Newton], and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways, or upwards?’

Of course, Newton was hardly the first person to think seriously about gravity. About 2,000 years earlier, Aristotle had recorded his theories on the subject. These had a great influence on the Greek-speaking world, the Muslim world, and Western Europe, up until the time of Galileo. Galileo demonstrated several flaws in Aristotle’s approach, and made measurements which showed that falling objects follow parabolic paths.


Parabolas traced out by a bouncing ball (photo: MichaelMaggs)

Newton’s genius lay in being able to explain both Galileo’s findings and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion using a single mathematical equation: F = G m1 m2 / d 2. This articulated the strength of the gravitational force, while leaving the true nature of gravity mysterious. Consequently, Newton’s work was hardly the last word on the subject. Einstein’s general relativity made considerable advances in the understanding of gravity, but several questions still remain.

The scientific understanding of gravity neither started nor ended with Newton, which means that the speaker in the video linked above is quite wrong in saying: “Western knowledge … is saying that it was Newton and only Newton who knew and saw an apple falling and out of nowhere decided gravity existed and created an equation and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not‚ or whatever happens in Western Africa‚ Northern Africa‚ the thing is the only way to explain gravity is through Newton, who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall.

Western knowledge says nothing of the kind, of course. It is a sad thing that “decolonisation” is being driven by such radical misunderstandings, when what is needed may in fact be a review of the humanities and improvements in basic education.


Ecological literacy and Frank Herbert’s Dune, half a century on


Dune by Frank Herbert

The year 1965 saw the appearance of what has been called “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.” Frank Herbert’s Dune explored a plethora of interesting themes, notably that of ecology. The novel speaks of “… teaching [the children] ecological literacy, creating a new language with symbols that arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape, its climate, seasonal limits, and finally to break through all ideas of force into the dazzling awareness of order.

The use of food webs, like the one for waterbirds of Chesapeake Bay above, was fairly standard by 1965, and Herbert seems to be hinting at a graphical language for ecology going beyond that. Exactly what he was referring to is unclear.

But are we teaching the kind of ecological literacy Herbert refers to? A 2013 survey indicated that, out of 145 US tertiary institutions ranked for “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” and “Integrative Biology,” only 47% taught a course in ecosystem ecology or biogeochemistry, and only 22% of the courses included field experiences. A 1993 survey of UK secondary teaching (A-levels and GCSE) showed that students only studied a median of 2 or 3 different habitats:

So how many children actually understand, say, trophic cascades in the wolf–elk ecosystem? How many adults, for that matter? The evidence suggests that it’s not very many, judging by the resistance to sensible management of National Parks. If we do not wish to recreate the desert planet Arrakis, we might like to work on that.


Aliens, C. S. Lewis, and the Fermi paradox

A blog post on the Fermi paradox someone linked me to reminded me of an essay by C. S. Lewis entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” In that essay, Lewis gives an interesting analysis of the possibilities for non-vegetable alien life, and the religious implications that such life might have. For example, such aliens (if they exist) might be simply animals.


The xenomorphs of the Alien film series are not evil – they are simply (very) dangerous animals.

Alternatively, the aliens might have “the power to mean by ‘good’ something more than ‘good for me’ or even ‘good for my species.’” Of course, knowing about good does not mean that the aliens are good. They might be irredeemably evil, in which case it is better if we never meet them.


Orcs in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien are irredeemably evil (artwork: Antoine Glédel).

On the other extreme, there may be alien species that have never turned from good to evil. C. S. Lewis’ own novel Out of the Silent Planet describes three such species, and in “Religion and Rocketry,” he describes the rather sad results that our contact with such species could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.


C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet describes three fictional alien species living on Mars: the hrossa, the séroni, and the pfifltriggi. All are free from evil.

The most interesting option is that of aliens who, like us, have tasted both good and evil. Writers of fiction have concentrated on this kind of alien, because they often lead to more interesting storylines, and because they hold up a mirror in which we can see some part of ourselves. However, that does not mean that such aliens exist. And if they do exist, the final resolution of evil in their species, Lewis suggests, may or may not be related to that in ours.


Underneath the makeup, Klingons are creatures much like ourselves. A little too much like ourselves to be truly plausible.

Of course, if we ever meet aliens like ourselves, and those aliens are stronger than we are, things might go as badly for the human race as they did for the Native Americans. One might dream of the opportunity “to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, … to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes.” But perhaps it’s best if that remains merely a dream, and that any (hypothetical) aliens remain far, far away.


The novel Footfall, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, presents a slightly more plausible alternative – aliens that have evolved from herd animals. However, things go badly for the human race when they decide to “stomp” us.

Avoiding any aliens that might be out there is particularly sensible if reality resembles some of the nastier fictional alien scenarios, such as those involving the Borg, Daleks, Berserkers, or Vang. Indeed, some people have suggested that the presence of powerful implacably hostile aliens might explain the failure of SETI to find any extraterrestrial intelligent life. On the other hand, silence might just mean that there’s nobody out there.


If “resistance is futile,” it might be safer to stay very, very quiet.