Posts Tagged ‘Natural History’

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

In pursuit of knowledge…

March 3, 2015

Whether one takes a religious line and believes that God gave us reason and intellect and therefore we should use them, or a more secular approach, believing that the human brain is one of the peaks and marvels of evolution, surely our curiosity and ability to pursue knowledge is one of the greatest things about our species; I have always felt this.

Humans have always sought to know and to understand their world; over millennia our knowledge and understanding has grown. Men have sought to write down the sum of what is known – Pliny‘s Natural History is a fascinating example of this, although for me the pioneer has always been Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk who wrote what has sometimes been called the world’s first encyclopaedia, his Etymologies, a series of twenty short volumes which attempt to classify, categorise and explain all things that were definitely known in his time. For his pioneering work, he has earned the title of patron saint of the internet, which I think is wonderful. The organisation and content of the Etymologies is at times weird and/ or bizarre, but it’s the effort and determination, and the understanding that it needed to be done, which earns the respect.

Similarly, travellers and explorers, about whom I often write, have dedicated themselves, through the centuries, to finding out about the furthest corners of our world, often at extreme risk and peril; the more I read, the more I am astonished by how much was known and discovered long ago, in many different lands. But then, knowledge can be lost, and I do feel that there is a Western bias in the way that discovery is presented to us nowadays, in that a thing or place in unnown until someone from the west has uncovered it and written about it.

When I was 14, men landed on the moon for the first time and walked about on it; I got myself up at three in the morning to watch the event live on grainy black and white television, and it is still, all those years later, the most marvellous thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it remains etched clearly on my memory. Yes, they knew where they were going, how far it was, and how long it would take, and the risks involved; they did it, and it’s the furthest humanity has physically got in its exploration of the universe. I doubt that I will still be here when men walk on Mars, but I do believe that money, time and effort spent on getting there is worthwhile, compared with many other things on which we waste our time and resources.

When Wikipedia first began, the idea seemed weird: an encyclopaedia anyone could contribute to, and yet as it has evolved and developed it has become a veritable goldmine of information (yes, I know not all of it is reliable, but its reach stretches way beyond anything else) and it lives on in the spirit of Isidore, as a recognition of our search for knowledge.

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