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 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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book #15 - Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe)

After finishing "Kim" I wanted to move on to something very different, and I got it. I'm now 100 pages into Thomas Wolfe's novel "Look Homeward, Angel". Wow. This is a big and sprawling 700 page book, with an emphasis on BIG! The novel, so far, chronicles the history of the Gant family. The father, Oliver Gant, is one hell of a character. In my blog I may discuss the finer points of sipping whiskey, but Oliver Gant is not a sipper, he's a gulper. He's an alcoholic who goes on benders every now and then, before pulling out of it and returning to his family. He also has a huge, outsized personality...much like the novel itself. He screams, yells, and curses, sometimes with malice, sometimes with humor. He's a force of nature. He moves to the hills of western North Carolina, and raises a big family. His son, Eugene, is clearly going to be the focus of the book. I've often heard the phrase "Southern Gothic", and didn't really know what it meant, but I'm guessing the Gant family meets the description.

Wolfe's writing style is quite fascinating. He'll write a few paragraphs, or pages, in straightforward, easy to follow, "story-telling" style. Then he'll lapse into what I would call "impressionistic" writing...a more poetic, free-form style of writing. I quite enjoy the contrast...The poetic parts are nice, and very visual sometimes, but if that was all there was, the book would be impenetrable. I think this book will continue to be fun to read...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Kim's Conclusion

After a hard week at work I was finally able to return to "Kim" this weekend and finish off the last 50 pages. I usually issue a "spoiler alert" for the discussion of the ends of books, but there really isn't anything to spoil here. Kim and his lama buddy travel to the Himalayas so the lama can continue his search for enlightenment and Kim can help stop some Russian spies. They encounter the Russian spies, and through a cultural misunderstanding one of them punches the lama in the face. An uproar ensues, allowing Kim and another spy friend to take the Russian's maps and secret papers from them. A spy success worthy of 007 himself! The lama becomes ill from his wounds and they must take him down the mountains back to the flatlands, where he gets better (well, somewhat) and eventually finds the river of enlightenment that he seeks, and vows to enlighten his pupil Kim. The End.

Now, if you're like me, your saying...huh? I enjoyed this book for the most part, but there was just a lot I did not get. And I mean two different things by this. First, as I mentioned in previous posts, there is the language and writing...I just found some of Kipling's passages incomprehensible. These were usually passages of dialog, where I could not tell who was talking, or what the heck they were trying to convey. Second, there's the book as a whole. It seems to me that Kim probably symbolizes India...He knows the way of all types of Indian folks, from whites to Hindus to Buddhists, and can pass for any of them. He is the "friend of all the world". He plays "The Great Game" of imperial politics, yet earnestly follows his lama to seek enlightenment...He combines the worldly with the spiritual to an ultimate extent (just like India!). But when I finished the book I thought "that's it"? I dunno. It was a fun read, and I would not discourage anyone from reading it, but I guess that ultimately I didn't get that much out of it...which is a first for this reading project!

So it's on to the next book! I've read a streak of Victorian novels lately, and I have a lot more in that vein I want to read this summer, but I'm thinking for the next book I'll take a break from that genre just to mix things up a bit. As to which book that will be, I haven't decided yet. One of the hardest parts of this project is picking the next book, because I really want to read them all at once. An embarrassment of riches!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Kim Continued

Tonight I'm sipping on some Bernheim Wheat odd, exotic whiskey that tastes nothing like bourbon, or Irish, or Scotch whiskey; instead it has some qualities of each. Which makes it a good pairing with "Kim", a novel of exotic India, which I thought was going to be a road trip story but has turned into a a spy novel. And a road trip story. When I last posted, Kim and his friend an old buddhist monk (lama) were traveling the countryside of 19th century British India, looking for a magical healing river which the lama says was created when Buddha split the ground with an arrow. Kim was going along for the ride, but all that changed when they came across a regiment of Irish soldiers. The regiment had as their flag a red bull on a green field, which matched a prophesy made by Kim's father before he died...that Kim would some day be attended to by hundreds of men lead by a red bull on a green field. Turns out this was Kim's father's regiment, and when they figure out who Kim is, they take him from the lama and decide to raise him as an Irish kid, instead of the somewhat feral Indian child he thinks he is. Well, Kim's not too happy about this, because he just wants to hang with the lama. Naturally, complications ensue, and the commanders of the regiment figure out just how wily and street-smart Kim is, which makes them realize he'd be a great spy! So they send him to a good school, paid for by his friend the lama, and he gets to travel India with the lama during holidays. He learns to read and write, and eventually graduates and can become a spy. Kim digs this...he gets to use his acting and "people skills", he can still travel around with his lama buddy, and he quickly becomes good at what he does. He and his fellow spies refer to their endeavors as "The Great Game".

I find this a curious book. First, as I mentioned previously, I sometimes find it hard to follow. Sometimes there will be a conversation, and I'll think " it the whiskey or do I just have no idea what these people are trying to say to one another". Then I'll realize I haven't even had any whiskey. And then, a page or two later, everything is clear again. Not sure if this is due to Kipling's style, or whether it's just ADD kicking in. Regardless. it's disconcerting. Then there's the problem of a lot of vernacular in the book. There are a bunch of different types of people, English (white), Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and each of them seems to have their own nickname...pahari, faquir, sahib, pathan, etc. While exotic and colorful, it's also hard to follow. An annotated version of this book would be an excellent help. There's also the issue of politics...just who is spying on who in "The Great Game"? We all know Britian ruled India in the 1800s, but who were they spying on? We get some clues...rebellious kings, Russians, but the historical background is unknown to me.

The joys of this book, though, for me are two-fold: the character of Kim, and his friendship with the lama. Kim is incredibly likeable...young, smart, sassy, clever, often irreverent, wise beyond his years. People in the book like him a lot too, and his nickname is "Friend of all the World". The lama is old, innocent, pure at heart. Kim is very much of this world, while the lama is mostly on a more spiritual plane and is usually quite naive in dealings with other people. So far Kim can travel with the lama and work as a spy on occasion, and the lama is none the wiser. But Kim totally loves the lama, and vice versa...their bond, as master and pupil, as well as two companions, is deep and moving, despite (or perhaps because of) the great differences between the two. Kim definitely has an issue with his identity, or lack thereof...although he's technically white (a sahib), he doesn't relate to any one ethnicity or caste. He's ambiguous, which, of course, makes him great spy material.

Anyway, I have about 60 pages left. I'm quite curious to see how this all ends up. Of course, I'll be sure to let you know.