The Accidental Species by my friend and colleague Henry Gee is a new, and excellent, book on Human Evolution. I recommend it. I’ll even review it soon. But in the meantime, you can get a free chapter of it by clicking this link to download a PDF supplied by the NCSE.
The Hobbit, the movie, opens tomorrow in a theater near you. This is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins. To many, this constitutes a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which many read (or saw in movie form) before finding out about The Hobbit; this prequel-esque aspect of The Hobbit is reified in the production of the movie following the distribution of the Lord of the Rings movie. Notably, however, The Hobbit was written first, and The Lord of the Rings is a proper sequel. (Interestingly, the Hobbit was revised to accommodate The Lord of the Rings.)
This entire story takes place in Middle Earth, a richly described fantasy universe that has become the interest, sometimes obsession, of many minds since Tolkien. If you find Middle Earth interesting (and you should) then there is a book you absolutely must read about it. I’m talking about Henry Gee’s “The Science of Middle Earth: Explaining the science behind the greatest fantasy epic ever told.” Henry Gee wrote this book a few years back and you may have read it then, perhaps like me you have a dog eared paperback version of it on the shelf next to your copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But Henry has produced a second edition of the book, available for the Kindle, and at present, sold in the Amazon UK store (at the link provided above).
Gee covers what you would expect. Elf magic, Orc reproductive biology, Dragon pyrophysiology, Middle Earth social networking and communications technology (such as seeing-stones) and so on. But Gee takes also takes a broader view of “Science” than one might find in a typical “Science of some book or movie” treatment. For example, he interrogates Tolkien’s linguistics very closely, and carries out what amount to Anthropological and Ethnographic studies of Middle Earth Culture.
Here’s a sampling of some silmarillion science:
Elvish science reached its peak in the First Age with Fëanor, universally regarded as the brightest and most powerful of all the Elves…who created the Silmarils, the great jewels over which the first wars against Morgoth were fought. The … Seeing Stones were givts from the Elves to the Faithful of Numenor, having been made long before in Valinor …. It was Celebrimbor of Holin, a descendant of Fëanor, who forged the Three Rings of Power…
The Lord of the Rings contains many passing references to the relative hardness of materials, but this hardness has a mythic quality in that it directly correlates with technological sophistication of the smiths associated with that substance. For example, the Ents easilyidetroy the country rock that forms the outbuildings and walls of Isengard, but they are unable to ake a dent in Orthanc, a tower built by th elong-vanished Numenoreans, a tower with Gandalf says cannot be destroyed from without… But when Wormtongue tosses the palantir of Orthanc from an upstairs window, it makes a distinct chip in the Numenorean step on wich it falls — a step against which the rage of Treebeard has had no effect at all.
Gee addresses the idea that Tolkien had an anti-science bent, and turns that idea on its head, or at least, its pointy ear, and grounds that discussion in both scientific and literary context. Relating this question to Orc reproductive physiology:
In terms of science, these various grades of Orc-human mixture can be read as a savage critique on evolution itself – or, at least, the view of evolution as ‘progressive’, leading to inexorable improvement in form and function. This is the view of evolution that would have been current in the first half of the 20th century, and most especially between 1900 and the end of the Second World War, encompassing Tolkien’s most productive years as a writer. I have shown elsewhere that this view of life is profoundly antithetical to what we now understand of the Darwinian model of evolution by natural selection, and has indeed been exposed as illogical by theorists working from the 1950s onwards…
And here is a sample of Henry’s linguistic and anthropological treatment:
When technical papers on incontinence, authored by a Dr. Splatt and a Dr. Weedon, were drawn to the attention of New Scientist magazine, its readers were invited to send in other examples of what became known as ‘nominative determinism’. This Jungian phenomenon illustrates how satisfying it can be when a name is more than a label, but illustrates some property of the thing named. Nominative determinism is amusing because it points up a distinction we usually take for granted. That is, that the name and the thing named are actually different things; that the effort of connecting the two is greater than we might imagine; and so it is satisfying when a person has a memorable name that records some distinctive property of the thing named, making it more than an arbitrary combination of sounds. Tolkien was as sensitive to this distinction as anyone: even in the first few pages of The Hobbit, Gandalf castigates Bilbo for remembering the name ‘Gandalf’, while forgetting that he, the wizard, ‘belonged’ to it.
There is a branch of science in which correct nomenclature is everything, and on which the whole of natural history is based. That discipline is taxonomy. The job of taxonomists is to provide names for species of living creatures. In ages past, the lack of any standard nomenclature made it hard for scientists to get the measure of the natural world. When the same creatures were known by host of names in different languages, it was impossible to know whether the same creature was being referred to in each case: as Elrond offers several names for Bombadil, Gandalf offers several names for himself, giving the origin of each. Gandalf is his name only among Men of the North, but he is called ‘Incanús’ in the South, ‘Tharkûn’ by the dwarves, ‘Olórin’ in the ancient West, and so on…. We know that all these names refer to the same person only because Gandalf tells us that this is so, not by some external reference. Were we to meet a southerner who mentioned having met Incanús, for example, we should only discover that we were talking of Gandalf by comparison of his attributes: both Gandalf and Incanús would have a staff, bristling eyebrows, a pointy hat and a silver scarf, suggesting (but not proving) that we were talking of one and the same person. But if Gandalf were known by the same name everywhere, this confusion should never arise, preferably by a name that reflected one or other of his attributes. As an aside, Tolkien got the name Gandalf from the Icelandic Völuspá —the same source for all the Dwarf names in The Hobbit. The name Gandalfr, however, seemed to stand apart, as an argument could be made for its meaning ‘Wand-Elf’ —in other words, a Wizard, rather than a Dwarf
This new edition of The Science of Middle Earth is not heavily revised from the first edition, but there are corrections and minor changes throughout. Most notably, it is the eBook edition (there is no eBook form of the earlier edition). Also notably, and thank you Henry for this, it is quite inexpensive.
Henry Gee is a member of the Tolkien Society and editor of it’s journal, Mallorn. He also works for another journal you may have heard of (“Nature”) where among other things he edits the regular science fiction feature “Futures.” Most recently, he authored the highly acclaimed science fiction work: The Sigil Trilogy.
Just a quick note, review to come later. Henry Gee has produced a Second Edition of his book The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!, which will be released on December 14th as a Kindle eBook.
There are two things to know about this. First, the Second Edition is revised enough to want to get it even if you have the first edition. Second, if you are not familiar with the book, it may be a bit different than you expect. It is not a book about the science IN Tolkein’s books as much as it is a scientifically oriented investigation of Tolken, the world he created, and the relationship between that made up world and the real world that provided the context for the created universe. Gee is a scholar of Science Fiction literature and his prowess in this field is well demonstrated by his cogent and deep analysis of Tolkien. The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told! is a philology of the pertaining documents, an anthropology (both cultural and biological) of the languages of that world, and an historical investigation of origins. There is demographics and life history theory, geology, genetics, allometry, and some attention to the mechanics of locomotion of trees and flying things.
You will probably want to read this before you see The Hobbit.
I’ll let you know if I notice the book’s early availability.
Henry Gee, the Nature editor, has a novel in three parts … Siege of Stars: Book One of The Sigil Trilogy … that I found hit home very closely like maybe Henry was me reincarnated and then transported back through time so his, er, our timeline would cross. This is not surprising since Henry and I have had overlapping interests in science for several decades, so his novel references a sense of understanding of the landscape, the kind of thing a geologist or archaeologist achieves either over time or because of an innate capacity. One of his characters is such an archaeologist. Another overlap is our experience observing academic culture. We tend to breed within (“we” meaning academics, not Henry and me specifically), and sometimes we form teams where thinking, understanding, and explaining are done as a compound organism. Also, and this may be too much of an inside reference, Book 1 at least is pretty much Cenozoic, which is cool.
Siege of Stars: Book One of The Sigil Trilogy is Book 1 of the Sigil Trilogy. It is a story about how the universe, and Earth, got to the present state, which turns out to be a rather dramatic historical set of events involving improbable beings doing large scale things in large scale, and Scotch. Siege is compelling, grandiose, and breathtaking in its spacetime and its characters are intriguing, personal, and complex. It has a classic parallel story structure which enhances the book’s page turning quotient. This book of Henry’s is going to be high on the charts. Oh, and there is a hint of Kilgore Trout. Not enough that you’d notice it and entirely confined to the plot.
I recommend you read it as soon as it is available. You might be able to get an advanced copy here.
Henry Gee is the author of several books including The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!, In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life, and editor of Nature’s Futures column, which is anthologized here.