Thursday 13 December 2012

The Science of Middle-earth

A review of Henry Gee's The Science of Middle-earth: Explaining the Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told, second edition for Kindle.

I am, by education and general interest, a physicist, and by literary predilection (or idiosyncrasy) a Tolkien enthusiast, so I am naturally sold on a title like The Science of Middle-earth — just how good can the world be to me?

Some years ago, I read Roger Highfield's The Science of Harry Potter in which he uses various magical phenomena as a starting-point for a discussion of how modern science might reproduce the various effects. While the science is certainly interesting, this approach, however, does nothing to illumine the literary work from which it takes it outset. However, having seen a number of Henry Gee's articles in Mallorn, I didn't really worry on that account about Gee's Science of Middle-earth and I wasn't disappointed.

The Science of Middle-earth (2nd, Kindle, edition), starts and ends with science — the role of science in modern society and how we get people interested in studying science, and I was rooting enthusiastically when Gee, in the final chapter, asserts that science is essentially a creative and imaginative endeavour (I usually say that the natural sciences are the most creative pursuits available to man-kind — that Tolkien's creative genius is expressed more clearly in his work in comparative philology than in his story-making, but that my be just my idiosyncratic perspective).

From the general theme of science in modern society, Gee moves to the more particular theme of Tolkien and science. Comparative philology such as Tolkien learned and practised it was a hard science — more so, as Gee points out, than contemporary evolutionary biology, and we should expect a basic sympathy for science in Tolkien's writings, though not necessarily for all applications of science.

The first chapter, ‘Space, Time and Tolkien’, dives into Tolkien's time-travel story, The Notion Club Papers,  looking into the familiarity with contemporary science fiction (or, as it is termed in the story, ‘scientifiction’) that is displayed within the story, and discussing how Tolkien, in his fiction, is dealing with the moral dilemmas of science. This leads naturally into Tolkien's own science, philology, which is discussed in some detail in the second chapter, ‘Inside Language’. It is here that Gee makes the comparison with the development of evolutionary biology in the twentieth century, showing how the sciences dealing with the evolution of species and the evolution of language shows many parallels, but also how philology was the more rigid and methodological of the two sciences until changes in evolutionary biology happening circa 1950-70. In this chapter Gee also addresses the perception of Tolkien's stance as anti-scientific, showing that such a position would be self-contradictory for Tolkien, despite Gandalf's anti-reductionist comment to Saruman (as given in LotR II,2 ‘The Council of Elrond’).

Chapter 3, ‘Linguistic Convergence’ deals with linguistic parallels, both between Primary World languages, between Tolkien's invented languages, and between these two groups, moving from simple comparisons to both reasons and stylistic considerations.

Naming in Tolkien has seen considerable interest over the years, not least in the eight years since the first edition of The Science of Middle-earth was released in 2004, but Gee's elegant way of tying ‘Tolkienymics’, the study of names in Tolkien's works, with biological taxonomy is still refreshingly different, and his list of biological names (maintained by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature) that are inspired by literature in general (such as “the fish Bidenichthys beeblebroxi”) and Tolkien in particular (a long, but nonetheless incomplete, list including the weevil Macrostyphlus Gandalf, and the fossil mammal Ankalagon Saurognathus). The anecdotes on the invention of false names are not only amusing, but also highlight the power of a name even in the Primary World. This theme of naming carries over into the following chapter with the naming of the submerged Rockall Plateau in the Atlantic Ocean, which is the result of continental drift.

Reaching chapter 6, ‘Inventing the Orcs’, the reader is met with a change of focus. From discussions of aspects of Tolkien's work (professional or sub-creational) leading to discussions of points of science and back again, we now encounter a discussion of story-internal aspects of Tolkien's sub-created world informed by science. Chapter 6 deals first with the linguistic roots of Tolkien's Orcs, which are nowhere as ambiguous and enigmatic as the story-internal origin and reproduction of the Orcs. Gee uses his extensive  knowledge to inform his discussion of how Orcs ‘in the wild’ (i.e. not under the immediate control of Morgoth or Sauron) might reproduce, considering industrial manufacture, sexual reproduction and parthenogenesis (a kind of virgin-birth where the mother-animal gives birth to a clone of herself).

This is followed up in chapter 7, ‘Armies of Darkness’, with a discussion of how Melkor, and later Sauron, created their vast armies of Orcs. The discussion here of early competitors to Darwin's theory of evolution, especially Larmarckism, is highly illuminating, and Gee's point that Tolkien's approach to evolution is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian is well made. I was, at this point, also strongly reminded by the article, ‘Legend and History Have Met and Fused’, in Tolkien Studies VIII by Philip Irving Mitchell in which Mitchell discusses the rejection of cultural Darwinism by Barfield, Dawson, Chesterton and Tolkien. Tolkien's own philosophical considerations on the nature of the Orcs (in particular as published in Morgoth's Ring) are neatly contextualised by being put in perspective with examples from both Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (particularly the Yahoo's of the fourth voyage).

The discussion of the biology of the Ents in chapter 8, ‘The Last March of the Ents’, and in particular of their encroaching extinction, is also informed by Gee's impressive knowledge of biology. Discussing various reproductive strategies of plants, Gee opens new possibilities without forcing the reader to accept or reject a specific position. In the same way, the discussion of mycorrhizae as a ‘wood-wide web’ opens new possibilities for our understanding of the influence of Old Man Willow on the trees in the Old Forest.

Another of the ‘great debates’ that Shaun Gunner lamented the disappearance of in an article in Amon Hen (see my post Glorfindel(s), I miss you! from August '12) is the discussion of Balrog wings. Gee's approach is typically scientific and after investigating relevant textual passages he discusses the physics and biology of flying creatures. Since he reaches the same conclusion as I do, I can, of course, only applaud a well-made argument :-)

After Balrogs, the dragons are inevitably next in line, and the discussion of how fire-breathing dragons can be imagined by assuming a gland to produce and store diethyl ether is both interesting (as a scientist) and amusing (as good science should be!). The problem about dragons, according to Gee, is not so much their fire-breathing, but rather that they are vertebrates with six limbs (giving the title of this, the tenth chapter, ‘Six Wheels On My Dragon’), but with a bit of scientific imagination, even this can be resolved, and the exhaling of much rarefied ether fumes can explain the hypnotic powers of a dragon (it's not a spell — it's merely a mild anaesthetic).

The optics of vision is in focus for the chapter on ‘The Eyes of Legolas Greenleaf’, which explains physical optics as well as the workings of the eye (and the image-processing capacity of the brain), together with asides on other solutions to the perception of light (with Gee acknowledging that “Elves, though, did not have the multifaceted eyes of moths.”). This discussion ranges through many aspects of the superior eyesight of the Elves, which is possibly why, in the end, I think the explanation is not entirely satisfying.

The discussion ‘Of Mithril’ in chapter 12 gives us an introduction to modern metallurgy with introduction of an array of highly interesting metallic materials, especially alloys and intermetals. Strangely Gee seems to overlook that neither the letters above the West Door of Khazad-dûm nor the rings of Frodo's mail are made of pure mithril, but rather of metals that the Dwarves made of mithril (“the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel” — LotR II,4 ‘A Journey in the Dark’), and the Elves used it to make Ithildin. Remembering this might have made the discussion a bit easier, as there doesn't seem to be any metallic material known that has all the properties of mithril and the mithril-derivates.

Continuing the tour of material science, Gee next turns to the materials used for the Palantíri and the Silmarilli — materials found in ‘The Laboratory of Fëanor’. Invoking quantum entanglement as well as exotic properties of lithium niobate and beta carbon nitride gets us a part of the way and the discussions of these topics (as well as explaining Moh's scale of hardness) are interesting in their own right.

Coming from two chapters discussing material science, I was expecting this to continue when I met the title of chapter 14: ‘The Gates of Minas Tirith’. Instead I was met with a truly excellent discussion of the theme of loss in Tolkien's Ardaic writings — spiritual loss, intellectual loss, technological loss, linguistic loss: they all combine in this discussion, which also makes the connection with our modern world and modern science. For me, this chapter alone is well worth the price of the book!

Loss leads seamlessly to death and decay, and a thorough discussion of the process of ageing (senescence) is of course necessary before one can discuss the immortality of Elves and the longevity of the Númenóreans.  In this is also emphasised our loss of our cousins: that it is actually a rather unique situation in the history of humanity that there is only one human species.

The focus of the book is, naturally, on biological science, and this is also evident in the chapter on oliphaunts and giant spider-like creatures (chapter 16, ‘Giant Spiders and Mammoth Oliphaunts’). Interestingly Gee concludes that Tolkien's oliphaunts might just be remotely possible, but the huge creatures in Peter Jackson's films are not, just as the huge spider-like creatures are impossible. Possibilities and impossibilities are also in focus of chapter 18, ‘In the Matter of Roots’ in which Gee discusses the appearance of such plants as tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco in Tolkien's books, though the interesting part is rather his discussion of how Tolkien uses the naming of plants to set a scene more forcefully; something he does particularly in the Shire to create a sense of homeliness for an English reader by mentioning trees familiar in the English fauna, and in Ithilien by listing a more southern fauna (mainly Mediterranean trees, herbs and shrubs).

In the intervening chapter, chapter 17, Gee takes his outset in the author Arthur C. Clarke's claim (known as Clarke's  Third Law) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to advance the idea that there is really no such thing as Elvish magic, and that all we see can be explained by an advanced, organic technology. Gee makes many interesting points in his discussion, and though I think his approach is in some ways appropriate, it also fails to explain everything, as well as contradicting some of Tolkien's own explanations.

Even more exotic is the penultimate chapter, in which Gee invokes both string theory and the associated idea of branes in an attempt to explain the One Ring, though he must, in the end, give up the attempt, though, as he says, this is not “reason for despair” because, to a scientist, “the existence of the inexplicable is a challenge, and a reminder that science always has more to achieve.” Well said! And I might add, a call for the scientist be at his most creative.

Throughout The Science of Middle-earth the science is kept at a level where it remains in interesting and engaging dialogue with Tolkien's writings. Specialised scientific vocabulary is always explained, and the language in general is inviting curiosity. The book displays that essential feature of science, the creativity, and some of the explanations are certainly imaginative.

A bit roughly, I have noticed at least four ways in which the scientific content is being used in relation to the Tolkienian analysis:

First and foremost the scientific explanations and the analysis of Tolkien's writings can be in a dialogue: both offering new perspectives on the other without trying to explain each other. This is, for instance, the case in the chapter ‘The Gates of Minas Tirith’ in which discussion of the loss of textual evidence within Tolkien's own field, and the history of human evolution are used to inform the discussion of the theme of loss in Tolkien's writings, which again is allowed to inform our perception of these scientific themes. This is in general the points where the book, in my view, works best.

We also meet cases where the science content is used to open up possibilities for understanding Tolkien's writings such as the discussion of real world extinction of plant species opening up new routes for us to understand the situation of Tolkien's Ents.

Then there are the scientific asides — the tangential discussions that result from an enthusiastic desire to communicate a topic you love. While usually tangential to the topic, these are carried by the obvious enthusiasm for the science. As a scientifically minded reader, I enjoy these, though I also have to admit that they don't much progress the book overall.

Finally there attempts to explain aspects of Tolkien's sub-created world by means of science. When I view these as attempts to showcase the creativity of science, they do work, but as a Tolkienist, I am inclined to take the attempt at explaining perhaps a bit too seriously, and when that happens (as it did e.g. with the explanations for palantíri and the longevity of the Elves), these parts are where the book is, for me, the weakest.

In a short section at the start, we are treated to some of the praise for the first edition of the book. Here we learn that Tom Shippey called it “the most unexpectedly Tolkienian book about Tolkien that [he had] ever come across.” In most ways, I will say that this still holds, eight years after the first edition. Henry Gee displays a solid knowledge not only of science (which is both his education and his job), but also of Tolkien, and a great capacity for explaining both together and in an interesting language.

At times I miss reference to some more obscure writings of Tolkien, such as e.g. the essay ‘Ósanwe-kenta:
“Enquiry into the Communication of Thought”’ which I think is crucial in a discussion of the thought-transferring powers of the palantíri or the letters in which Tolkien makes clear that the difference between the magic of the Elves and the magic of Sauron is more a difference of intention than a difference of kind (except that the Elves did hold it as evil to use necromantic practices and never used these themselves).

Mostly, however, the book makes me want to engage with its arguments, either in the ‘yes, and . . .’ or in the ‘no, but . . .’ mode, but in either case because it inspires my own creative desire to find explanations. For when Henry Gee says that “All science that is enjoyable and worthwhile, rather than routine or directed in pursuit of some unconnected goal, starts when a person of vision looks outwards beyond the wall of what is known and asks the question ‘What If?’” I think he forgets that other question, the question that has inspired my own fantastic quest of science, ‘Why?’

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