Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Neal Stephenson - The Confusion

If the first volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle Quicksilver could be said to deal with the emergence of capitalism and modern money markets, then the second develops these themes even further. But it is aptly named, for the novel deals both with the chaos and confusion in Europe in the aftermath of the English Revolution and emerging capitalism, as the old feudal order jockeys for position with the new financial interests. As Marx wrote, "everything that is solid, melts into air" and old certainties such as the profits available from gold mines, the allegiances of nobles and aristocrats are no longer trustworthy.

Like the first book in the series The Confusion is a massive, sprawling work. While centering on a few characters it trawls the length and breadth of 17th century philosophy, science, technology and warfare. When we left our characters at the end of Quicksilver, one had been sold into slavery and another was on the brink of a fortune. Elsewhere the birth of the scientific revolution seems to have stumbled as some of the key figures are distracted by other paths. In the case of Isaac Newton this is his obsession with alchemy, though he is pointed forwards again, as the battles between the Whigs and Tories (representing the old aristocratic order in the first case, and the new financial kings in the other) force him to tackle the important question of finance and money supply. Newton heads, metaphorically for the Bank of England just as our heroes are heading towards financial fortunes themselves.

This is a novel that roams from South America's silver mines to North African cities, and onwards to Japan and the mid-Pacific. It's a novel that deals in pirates and enormous sea battles. Near magical encounters with nomads in the plains in Asia and the problems of building seagoing vessels while fearing a pirate queen.

At times it does feel slightly over-written, and in places the author takes us of into diversions that are fascinating, but add little to the plot (except to tell us about a world in turmoil) or illustrate the great philosophical questions of the time. An immense character list means that on occasion Stephenson has to drop figures from the plot, giving them early retirement or untimely death. That said, the story telling is impressive and their is a wonderfully satisfying set piece revenge near the beginning of the novel that left me near breathless with excitement and relief. To say more would ruin well over a thousand pages of story telling so you'll have to read more.

Unlike volume one, this book didn't make me want to dash off and read other books to illuminate the period.  That reflects the confusion at the heart of the plot, a sense of the characters trying to work out what they want and need in the midst of a world that is transforming itself or risk being left behind.

The sheer scale of these novels means they need to be read close together, or the reader will risk forgetting the details and the characters. Which means I intend to find volume three as soon as possible.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - Quicksilver

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ian Mortimer - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

If I am honest, when I first picked up Ian Mortimer's book I assumed it was going to be a gimmicky work
with little substance, designed by some shrewd publisher to sell the maximum number of copies, while telling the reader little more than generalisations about the period in question.

In part I was right. The publisher was shrewd and the book's premise - a sort of Rough Guide for confused visitors to the fourteenth century - is designed with the casual reader in mind, rather than the period expert. That said, I hope lots of people do purchase the book, because it is a richly detailed work of history that is immensely readable and will help a lot of people understand Medieval England in a way that many works of history don't.

So what makes this different. Firstly there is the style. Mortimer is very good and helping you think like a visitor. He encourages you to ask questions about what sort of food you might eat, and where you would stay. Some of these have surprising answers for instance (I hadn't realised just how recently carrots were domesticated into the orange things we know today). Mortimer also doesn't fall into the trap of assuming that we are only interested in the lives of the rich, or those that lived and worked in castles. While recorded history for ordinary people is limited, he has gone to great lengths to help us understand that Medieval England was a place of small towns, many days travel apart, separated by vast areas of lowly populated and often hostile countryside.

That said, Mortimer begins his work with your imaginary arrival at Exeter. From afar you see the cathedral spire, dominating the landscape for miles around and hundreds of metres taller than anything else man made. He describes the smells of "shitbrook" just outside the town walls, were human waste is dumped. He describes the poor children who come to take your horse, the muddy streets and the tiny, dark, buildings.

One of the surprises is that England was not entirely the dirty place were know from history lessons. People did not have any idea of germs, but they did try to be clean. Mortimer tells us that in the lord's hall at least,

"There are strict rules of etiquette to be obeyed. You must wash your hands immediately before every meal. Cut your bread do not break it. When offered a drink, wipe your mouth before lifting the cup."

Mortimer is also aware that the Medieval period was hardly static. On occasion he tells us how customs, understanding, or fashion changed over the century. Sadly, at times his information is fascinating, but there is a serious lack of references. So I thought the following paragraph an insight into changing social customs:

"A man publicly kissing a woman who is not of his family, however, does have sexual connotations and so you should refrain from greeting an acquaintance of the opposite sex with a big kiss in public. Even a peck on the cheek will raise eyebrows".

But Mortimer provides no indication as to "how" he knows this. Is it from a book of etiquette, a medieval poem or something else? How does he know a peck on the cheek will raise eyebrows as opposed to a lynch mob? Sometimes the detail, while arresting, is unbelievable if only because the reader might think it is a guess based on best knowledge.

Sometimes the feeling that Mortimer is extrapolating his beliefs from known facts can be quite strong, for instance, he describes Richard II as unusual for having "hardly any beard at all". He goes on to tell us that "his boyishly clean face contrasts so much with that expected in a king." This is fair enough as it does chime with existing portrayals of the King. What seems difficult to believe is the following sentence, when the author tells us that "The suspicion with which he is viewed by his people for most of his reign is a telling sign of how important it is to look the part in medieval society." Somehow I don't think that facial hair was the only problem for the subjects of Richard II.

In part this is only gripes from this reviewer. Most of the book is entertaining and educative, even if there aren't enough endnotes. The section on health and healthcare is particularly terrifying, though its hard not to stifle a 21st century laugh at those doctors who believed that to cure TB one should "take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water four hours after he has eaten." While the patient is bathing, his chest must be "wrapped in the skin of a small goat".

Anecdotes like this keep the reader reading. But Mortimer's insight is far greater. For instance he notes that medieval England was far quieter. No internal combustion engines, or radios. He speculates that people will listen differently, hearing far better. "When a dog barks, they can recognise whose dog it is. They are more sensitive to voices..."

While Mortimer's concludes by quoting of some random postmodernist telling us that we cannot really know the past as it was, his book does make a good attempt to explain the fourteenth century by contrasting it sharply with our own experiences in the contemporary developed world. I make that final point, because on occasion, particularly when Mortimer describes rural poverty in medieval England, a society almost entirely without healthcare and were peasants constantly worry about the next harvest, I did think about some of the images we see from the developing world in our own time. The past might be a foreign country, and this is a useful travel guide, but for many people today, some aspects wouldn't be that strange.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages: An Archaeological History

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jordan Lancaster - In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples

Before a recent visit to Naples I was repeatedly warned to beware of crime and pickpockets. Online reviews of our hotel complained about the dirt, graffiti and noise from the city centres population. Certainly modern Naples has a reputation as somewhere to be avoided, or travelled through on the way to the Amalfi coast, or the tourist hotspots at Pompeii.

I disagree with this judgement. Naples is in many ways no worse or better than any other city of a million souls. It is poor, and that creates social problems. But this is the result of government policy, organised crime and bureaucratic indifference. But Naples hasn't always been seen in a dark and gloomy light. For much of the last few hundred years it was the destination of choice for the up and coming nobility. One guide to Naples, written towards the end of the sixteenth century described its wonders:

"The number of marvellous things in this city and kingdom of Naples is so vast... Naples has always been as well attended by the agreeableness of its site, as by the studies and fine arts that flourished in it... In Naples one sees a flourishing and brilliant nobility... It has its population, numerous and civilised of choice people, who live the equal to any noblity in splendour. .... Its wide and spacious streets are adorned by the most noble and magnificent palaces and temples, with fountains of the clearest and freshest water, which bring great ornament and dignity to the city."

By the mid seventeenth century, Naples was a highlight of the grand tour, though in Jordan Lancaster's fine account of the city's history she points out that this was as much to do with the easily available prostitutes than just the  cultural, artistic and scientific sights in the city. The reawakening of Vesuvius in 1631 spurred scientific discussion about the volcano and related subjects. Just as the discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum would lead to renewed historical interests.

The story of Naples is very much the story of Italy. From ancient times the city has been associated with important trading routes, following the fall of the Roman Empire, in turn the area was dominated by various groupings (including I was surprised to learn a population of Normans from France). A long period of Spanish rule included many golden years for the people of the city. Later the Italian city states developed and Lancaster describes the alliances, wars and rows with ease for the reader who knows little of the subject. Famously, Naples was very closely associated with the unification movement of Garibaldi whose arrival in the city was supposed to herald a new era of prosperity. Yet promises were quickly forgotten.

But despite the splendour of Naples' palaces and fountains, the city was always one of sharp divisions. The extravagance of the wealthy compared to the immense poverty of the inner cities. Lancaster tells the stories of various attempts to deal with the shoddy housing, unemployment and hunger over the centuries, but the problem refuses to vanish. Despite occasionally well intentioned rulers the real underlying problems have never been solved.

Lancaster's book doesn't avoid the difficult questions of poverty and class. But her book is very much a cultural history. It concentrates on that side of the city's history rather than the class struggles or wider issues that shaped Italian history. There is much here on literature, art and music though the author certainly understands the way that cultural Naples has been shaped by the wider economic and political issues. It is a short book, but the author packs an enormous amount into her book. It is an excellent introduction to the city and should be read by everyone heading to that part of the world. It certainly illuminates a city that has far more to it than a port leading to Capri, or the nearby Roman ruins.

Related Reviews

Beard - Pompeii
Grant - Cities of Vesuvius - Pomepii and Herculaneum

Newby - Love and War in the Apennines

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dava Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Despite the title, this is very much a book about the life and times of the great Renaissance thinker
Galileo Galilei. That said, it is very much illuminated by the detail within the letters of Galileo's eldest daughter who, together with her sister, he sent to a convent at a very young age. When old enough, she took the name Suor Maria Celeste and lived her life out in the convent, a life of prayer, solitude and long hours of work. In fact the book might be seen as being two linked works. One on the life of Galileo, the other on life within an order of nuns in the 17th century.

By sending her to the convent, Galileo was in no way punishing the young girl. Born out of wedlock and before Galileo's fame had brought him limited financial security, this was one way that the young girls could have a more secure future. Though to modern eyes, their life remained one of poverty and difficulties, brought about by the convent's reliance on the generosity of others.

However the meat of the biography is Galileo himself. His trials and tribulations are illuminated by the collection of letters that were sent to him by Suor Maria Celeste. Her letters are filled with the support of a young woman for her aged father, discussing his financial (and spiritural) needs and returning mended clothes and foodstuffs that she had prepared for him. Galileo's own letters haven't survived, perhaps having been destroyed after his death by someone fearful that a keeping the letters of a victim of the inquisition might bring ill fortune upon themselves. But from Celeste's responses we can see that Galileo himself responded in kind. Sending money to alleviate temporary hardships in the convent, discussing his work and theories and ultimately the problems he faced with the church hierarchy.

Dava Sobel is excellent however and drawing out the dynamics of Galileo's arguments with senior figures in the Church. Few who select this book would not know that Galileo had faced criticism for defending the work of Copernicus, whose books, arguing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe and instead circled the Sun, had been banned by the Catholic Church. In an earlier brush with the Church's inquisition in 1616, Galileo had been instructed that he could not believe Copernicus' ideas, only hold them as a theory. At his later trial Galileo had emphasised this, saying "I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it".

Some have argued that Galileo was an early example of someone who fought against the irrationality of Catholic Doctrine, fighting it with science and reason. The truth, as Sobel explains, is much more complex. Galileo was a convinced Christian, but he understood that the problem was with those who argued the literal interpretation of the Bible as opposed to those who thought that God's word was more complex.

Sobel points out, that Galileo had once heard the Vatican librarian Cesare Cardinal Baronio say that "the Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven - not how Heaven goes." The problem for the Church, and indeed Galileo was that the Bible itself was mostly silent on the issues of the day. Galileo had seen the four major satellites of Jupiter with his telescope, but the Bible never mentioned them, as he wrote:

"Surely if the intention of the sacred scribes had been to teach the people astronomy, they would not have passed over the subject so completely."

Indeed, one of the problems for Galileo was that his Church, in dismissing the arguments of Copernicus and those beginning to follow him, was in danger of embarrassing itself in the face of wider revelations. As Sobel notes, Galileo sought more evidence to support Copernicus, not to damage the Church, but to correct it - "For if the Holy Fathers banned Copernicus as rumour predicted they might do at any moment, then the Church would endure ridicule when a new generation of telescopes, probably manned by infidels, eventually uncovered the conclusive evidence of the Sun-centred system."

As Galileo publishes the greatest of his books on the nature of the universe he works hard to ensure it is acceptable to the Church. It is checked by a number of senior figures and he tries hard to avoid further damage. The book is in the form of a dialogue, so Galileo avoids having himself argue the Copernican position, though he cleverly frames the debate in a way that encourages the reader to a particular conclusion. When the storm of criticism hits, Sobel makes it clear that Galileo himself was stunned by the allegations against him, and clearly thought that it was an enormous misunderstanding that would be clarified when he was able to explain himself. After all, Galileo was a new type of philosopher. His writings were based on observational evidence and experimental data. They were linked to God's reality, even if they ran counter to doctrine.

Sadly for Galileo and his daughter, despite the former close friendship of Pope Urban, the Church needed to be seen to defend doctrine firmly and Galileo was a sad victim of the reassertion of the Aristotelian view of the universe. Galileo died an old man, blinded and housebound, forbidden to discuss matters pertaining to his book (though he clearly flouted these rules and continued his scientific work). His daughter deceased him by several years, a victim of disease in a period when Medicine had barely escaped its links with mystical understandings of human health. To the end she remained a loyal daughter and despite her religious position her support for her father never wavered  Her end was eased when Galileo was finally allowed to return to his home near her, and their mutual company was clearly a great help to both of them.

Sobel's book then is more than a biography, as it demonstrates the way that as the scientific revolution was beginning, new ideas, even those dealing with outer space, challenged the political status quo. By refusing to accept Copernicus and banning Galileo's book, the Church wasn't simply dismissing theories that ran contrary to the Bible, it was also reasserting the ideology that gave it so much power and wealth. For Pope Urban, this was far more important than old ties of friendship, or experimental evidence.

Related Reviews

Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

Monday, April 08, 2013

Robert Harris - Imperium

Novels set in Ancient Rome are always hampered by the perceptions that people have of life there 2000 years ago. For many years Roman history has suffered from being the history of great men. Of senators, generals and of course Emperors. That's not to say that novels based around such individuals cannot be entertaining and informative.

Nonetheless because the history (and the documents) we have of the period tend to be those of “great” individuals, novels tend to follow similar paths, if only because the material available to form the backdrop for such lives is more readily accessible.

Robert Harris has now written a number of novels set in the ancient past. I wasn't overly impressed with the first of these Pompeii. But Imperium is a much stronger novel. Even though it centres on some of the most important figures of the late Republic, Harris avoids the trap of forgetting about the majority of the population because his narrator is Tiro, the extremely talented slave of the famous lawyer and counsel, Marcus Cicero.

Harris has done his research well. Many of the events in this book (which is in effect two linked shorter stories) are based in reality. The novel itself is supposed to be a biography of Cicero, and such a book (at least according to Plutarch) did exist, though tragically it has been lost to us since. Cicero is portrayed not simply as a brilliant orator. He also holds a mind of tactical genius and a singular determination to reach the peaks of power that were offered during Republican Rome.

Thus while centring on a particularly dramatic legal case (of extreme corruption and abuse of power by a Roman governor) and a political intrigue several years later, the main thread of the story is Cicero's struggle to achieve recognised greatness, seen through the eyes of his most important slave.

The backdrop to this is the decline of Republican Rome and the beginnings of the rise of the era of the Emperors. But behind all of this are the interests and struggles of Rome's different classes. The ruling class are aloof from the majority of the population, though a middling layer (of whom Cicero is a New Man) form a link between the top of the system and the masses below. Cicero's clients include those from the lower levels of society who often have been failed by the system as well as those who are more wealthy but seek redress. The masses by and large are a stage army, who give their loyalty to those politicians who have managed to either offer them the most in the way of bread and circuses or improved their lot. In Harris' telling Cicero is a man of the people, struggling against the excesses of the aristocracy and hence beloved by many ordinary people.

While Harris captures the limitations of Rome's democracy and brilliantly portrays the excesses and corruption of the majority of the ruling class, his portrayal of the dynamics of the mass of the population seems rather more one dimensional. This is very much exposed in the references to Grachuss, the reforming politician who was murdered by the ruling class for attempting to redistribute land in the interest of the masses. It is in these short paragraphs where you get a feel for how mass, class interests could shape Roman politics in a way that is absent elsewhere in the story.

Ultimately though this is the tale of a few individuals, despite Rome being the backdrop. Harris gives the reader a plausible tale of what life was like, the sights, smells, over-crowding and problems in the ancient capital. The dreams of freedom of Tiro are poignant and seem real, and if on occasion there are plot devices that seem a little contrived to ensure that our narrator can be present at some of the most important events in Roman history, this can be excused in the interest of a great storyline.

Unfortunately the afterword tells us nothing of what is based on known history and what is speculation and Robert Harris despite acknowledging his reliance on more recent scholarship he fails to direct the reader to more works that might allow those whose interest has been pricked in the history, to learn more. This is a shame because Imperium is an excellent read and could well put many on the path to a deeper study of Roman history.

Related Reading

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Lisa Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Having really enjoyed Neal Stephenson's book Quicksilver recently, a novel set during the late 1600s which frequently focuses on some of the lives of members of the Royal Society, I decided to learn more about these early scientists - men like Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Lisa Jardine's book on the Scientific Revolution seemed to be a good place to start.

Jardine begins with the scientific advances being made in the early 1600s in the fields of astronomy. Much of these were triggered by new technology in the fields of optics and time keeping. People gazing at the heavens, such as the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed could now precisely measure the position of stars as well as observe the skies in improved detail. The work that Renaissance thinkers like Galileo had done was built on and expanded. Much of the needs of this were driven by wider interests. The measurement of the heavens was important not simply for pure science, but because it added navigation, and as the world was being opened up to Europeans by traders, explorers and the military, accurate navigation was very important.

Jardine's book is well written and readable. She deals well with the debates and disputes that took place between scientists at the time. The arguments that took place in late 1680 and 1681 for instance as leading figures like Isaac Newton and Flamsteed tried to understand the comets that had been seen in November and January are covered well. Whether they were the same comet or different had enormous ramifications for the understanding of the solar system and Jardine explains this well. She also captures the frustrations of these new experimenters well, as they competed for funds or tried to get new ideas published before the others to secure their patents and scientific notability. Though Jardine's main thesis is that these new scientific minds were less concerned with day to day politics and more with seeking scientific truth. On a number of occasions scientists continued to communicate despite their respective countries being at war. One reason why the Royal Societies secretary, Henry Oldenburg was briefly imprisoned by the King.

The book is neatly parcelled up into different sections which often centre on a particular scientific theme - astronomy, map making, anatomy and clockwork for instance. While this makes the book readable and self-contained it highlights wider problems with Jardine's work. Not the least of this is an annoying level of repetition - several of the anecdotes she tells are repeated and we are introduced to key figures on more than one occasion. Were the book longer this might be necessary, but in this case it really is not needed.

Much of the book is made up of illustrations, though many of the black and white images are replicated in colour in the centre of the book. Oddly some of these are on facing pages, which is a strange layout. Omitting the duplication would have shortened the book considerably.

However this is a minor irritation. More problematic is Jardine's approach to the period. The late 1600s were a period of immense scientific development in western Europe. Jardine seems to make no real attempt to locate these changes in the context of a enormously changing world. Following the Dutch revolt and the English Revolution, new commerical interests were opening up the world. Slavery was beginning on a mass scale and global trade was rocketing. Inside England, new industrial processes were taking root as the economic and political situation was freeing up the ability of the rich to make more money from capitalistic methods.

Throughout human history, there have been geniuses like Leonardo de Vinci, Galileo or Newton. But Jardine doesn't get to the heart of why in the period being discussed they seemed to blossom in great numbers. It wasn't simply that people were suddenly more interested in the world, it was that the world had changed and was demanding to be understood. The financial incentives to understand for commerical, or military gain were also encouraged by a new layer of the wealthy who had the time to collect, study and experiment.

Sadly this lack of clarity over wider questions is hampered by other problems. On occasion Jardine is warrant to make somewhat glib generalisations. On one she writes that "Even during the period of Newton's presidency [of the Royal Society]... the physics, astronomy and mathematics we associate with the birth of modern science today was a minor, specialist interest". Given that Jardine has spent several large sections of the book discussing the importance that various figures in the Royal Society gave to these subjects as well as pointing out their importance to navigation and the longitude problem this seems an odd claim.

An isochrone curve. Image from Wikipedia
In addition to these generalisations I was disappointed by a number of other observations. For instance, Jardine writes that Jacob Bernoulli was the discoverer of the "isochrone, the curve along which a body with uniform vertical velocity will fall."

Bernoulli did not "discover" the isochrone. He was the first to solve the problem using calculus. Huygens did it geometrically 40 years beforehand. In addition her description of the isochrone is inaccurate. The isochrone is actually the curve for which an object moving without friction will reach the lowest point in the same time, independent of its starting position.

Sadly Jardine's focus on the individuals rather than the wider picture, obscures the real processes taking place in science during the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, while discussing the discovery of the structure of DNA in her epilogue, she writes that:

"What must strike us... is how similar the tales are that Hooke and Watson tell: tales of casual encounters in coffee houses, overheard remarks and data encountered fortuitously... brash remarks, rash promises of success, mistakes hastily withdrawn..."

But sadly this is not the key lesson of how discoveries are made, nor is it a accurate explanation of the scientific method, which examines theories based on experimental evidence and then reworks them. This was the real legacy of the scientific revolution. Unfortunately these weaknesses mean that this book is not particularly useful in understanding either the context for the scientific revolution or some of the key discoveries of the period.

Related Reading

Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments