Sunday, July 27, 2008

Scientists Peruse the Odyssey!

This post is a bit of a break from my cocktail-enhanced analysis of the great works of literature. But as a scientist, I had to report this latest breaking research for all you literature fans out there. As part of my job, I have to keep up with the scientific literature, which is a bit like drinking from a fire hose these days. So recently when I was looking over the table of contents to a recent issue of "The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" I came across an article titled "Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey". Despite this being far afield from my area of research (mostly things DNA-related), I had to check this paper out. The authors are a physicist and an astronomer. Here's the abstract of the article, which provides a good summary:

"Plutarch and Heraclitus believed a certain passage in the 20th book of the Odyssey ("Theoclymenus's prophecy") to be a poetic description of a total solar eclipse. In the late 1920s, Schoch and Neugebauer computed that the solar eclipse of 16 April 1178 B.C.E. was total over the Ionian Islands and was the only suitable eclipse in more than a century to agree with classical estimates of the decade-earlier sack of Troy around 1192–1184 B.C.E. However, much skepticism remains about whether the verses refer to this, or any, eclipse. To contribute to the issue independently of the disputed eclipse reference, we analyze other astronomical references in the Epic, without assuming the existence of an eclipse, and search for dates matching the astronomical phenomena we believe they describe. We use three overt astronomical references in the epic: to Bo├Âtes and the Pleiades, Venus, and the New Moon; we supplement them with a conjectural identification of Hermes's trip to Ogygia as relating to the motion of planet Mercury. Performing an exhaustive search of all possible dates in the span 1250–1115 B.C., we looked to match these phenomena in the order and manner that the text describes. In that period, a single date closely matches our references: 16 April 1178 B.C.E. We speculate that these references, plus the disputed eclipse reference, may refer to that specific eclipse."

So basically, they wanted to see if the date of an eclipse that may or may not have been described in the Odyssey correlated with any other astronomical references noted in that work, and indeed they found that everything points to the same time in history, namely April 16, 1178 BC. This corresponds to a date that is approximately ten years after the historic sack of Troy, which totally fits the timeline of the Odyssey. My scientific take on this is: "Woah, that's kinda cool"!

The eclipse incident in the Odyssey is described as this in the paper:

"In the 20th book of the Odyssey, as the suitors are sitting down for their noontime meal, Athena "confounds their minds" (Od. xx.345) so that they start laughing uncontrollably and see their food spattered with blood. Then, the seer Theoclymenus makes a most remarkable speech foreseeing the death of the suitors and their entrance into Hades, ending in the phrase (xx.356) "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." The word that we have translated as "invades,"had a connotation of "attacking suddenly or by surprise," the modus operandi of an eclipse"

There's a rub, though, which is how the heck could Homer have known not just about the eclipse, but about the correlating astronomical phenomenon, when the Odyssey was written centuries after the events. As the authors themselves state:

"...our conjectural Homer would have had to be aware that there was an eclipse on a certain date and what the planets did on nearby dates. This is problematic enough, because the dates were centuries before his time; how this knowledge was acquired—we dare not conjecture, for all possibilities sound equally outlandish. Much research is needed before we can move beyond such speculations; we can only modestly hope to convince other scholars...to ponder if the remarkable coincidence described in this paper may in fact not be coincidental at all."

So in other words: "Woah, that's kinda cool. But maybe a coincidence". Still I find this exercise in the scientific method quite refreshing,thought provoking, and just plain fun.

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