Friday, 28 November 2008

God and Evolution Can Co-exist, Scientist Says

LiveScience carried the story this week of Karl W. Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts, who is coming out of the closet as being both a full-blooded scientist and fully-committed Christian. In a discussion with Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer, it was reported:
Obviously, he thinks one can be a Christian and accept evolution, but these two sets of knowledge "don’t make as much contact with each other as people think," he said. Many fundamentalists "elevate Genesis beyond what is appropriate."

Fundamentalists' spin on the creation story in Genesis "robs it of everything that is interesting," he said. Instead, readers should recall that the Bible repeats the refrain that God found what he made "good" and looks at the world as good.

Shermer pushed on, asking Giberson to comment on the following definitional statement from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos:"

"For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins ... Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we sprung."

"What’s wrong with that?" Shermer asked Giberson, with a smile.

This kind of thinking is "hardly going to inspire ordinary people" to be passionate about spirituality, Giberson replied. "I just don’t think it would be a functional religion."

The full article can be found here. On the theme of Carl Sagan, Lee over at Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anywhere Else has an interesting comparison post on Steele vs. Sagan.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Excerpt from Jules Henri Poincaré's "The Sciences and the Humanities" (1911)

Amongst the men who have, always usefully but with differing degrees of brilliance, given service to science, some have received in their youth a solid classical education, refined in some cases, whereas the literary schooling of others has been rushed, incomplete and summary. It is tempting to conclude that literary study is useless to the scientist, since so many of them manage without. But that would be hasty. Is it really true that we can’t make out differences between the work of the one sort and the other and discern their hallmarks, so to speak? Well, that’s a comparison I don’t wish to carry out here. It would require me to name names, and I wouldn’t wish to offend anyone, even the dead. In such matters it is hard to judge, but if, in any case, we were to show that the one type were equally good scientists as the other, what exactly would be proven? The fact of the matter is self-evident. For a long time, it has been difficult to make your name and, in general to rise above your station, without schooling. Those who have succeeded nonetheless have done so thanks to an exceptional energy which has made up for the lack of a range of other advantages, and which has put them on a par with more cultivated individuals of a less sturdy character.

What is certain is that scientists who have benefited from a classical education are, to a man, glad of it, whereas those who have gone without are regretful, for the most part (I say “for the most part” because for some time there have been men who see in their simple origins some sort of democratic glory and ancient entitlement). Why are the one type glad and the other regretful? Is it just that science isn’t everything? That life comes first, and that culture gives us both new reasons to live and new life within. No. Each has a vague feeling that the humanities are not useful only to men, but specifically to scientists.

...

The scientist must not delay himself in refining himself. He will manage to do so, no doubt, but as a bi-product. He must never forget that the particular thing he is studying is only a part of the great universe that is all around him, and that it is love and curiosity for this universe that must be the sole aim of his activity. Science has had marvellous applications, but science which considers only its applications is no longer science. It is no more than cookery. There is no science other than disinterested science.

You have to go higher and higher still, without delaying on the way, in order to see ever further. The true Alpinist always thinks of the summit he has just climbed to as a stepping-stone which will take him to a still higher summit. The scientist must have mountaineer’s feet, and above all a mountaineer’s soul. This is the spirit that must move him. This is the spirit that once had life in Greece and gave birth there to poets and thinkers. There remains in our classical teaching something vague of the old Greek spirit, something which makes us look ever higher. And that is more valuable for making a scientist than volumes and volumes of geometry.

Monday, 24 November 2008

More Excerpts from Gustave Doré's "Prophecies"

French illustrator Gustave Doré earned his beginning as a newspaper charicaturist, which was amply reflected in his book Two Hundred Sketches Humorous and Grotesque. Here is a second set of excerpts from the chapter "Prophecies Concerning the Future of the French People", in which Doré attempts the Parisian fetish of prognostication.


The newspapers will continue more than ever, by accounts
of sea serpents and other monsters, to spread horror
and consternation among their subscribers.


But they will likewise continue, in the morning,
to contradict the horrifying facts they
have announced overnight.


The pupils of the "Conservatoire de Musique" will
continue to disdain the foolish prejudices
associated with their sex.


Ever anxious to offer novelty to its patrons,
management of the Hippodrome will send for some
Esquimaux, and change its arena into a polar sea.


The generation that's going out will continue
to look down with supercilious pity upon the
generation that's coming in.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

It is often said that Jules Verne wrote about technology while H.G. Wells wrote about people. Between the two originators of the Scientific Romance, the Briton is regarded as writing social, political and religious tracts veiled in thin scientific premises of Martian invasions and cruel vivisection. Verne's domain was that of technology and discovery, writing carefully researched stories about the phenomena of science and industry.

Wherever this assessment stands in relation to Wells (he may have been the one to propagate it), it is not entirely accurate in regards to the elder Frenchman. He certainly did write about technology and industry, science and discovery, and did so excellently. Verne's gimlet genius pierced not only into the future of technology, but also into how technology affects and is affected by society.

One of Verne's earliest novels was of this sort... In fact, the vision of metropolitan alienation presented by Paris in the 20th Century was so drear that publisher Jules Hetzel refused to release the book. It would not occupy store shelves until 1994. While Verne was dissauded from further depressing and pessimistic work, he continued to inject insightful commentary into his stories of adventure.

From the Earth to the Moon, written only two years after Paris in the 20th Century, is a perfect example of Verne's approach to the subject. What we find within its pages is not so much the story of a lunar expedition. Unlike later novels, the expedition is the plot device. Instead, we read a hysterical and biting satire of the American military-industrial complex.

The story begins with the elder statesmen of the Baltimore Gun Club bemoaning the lack of a good war to test their skills against. That these noble inventors are each missing a wide and creative variety of limbs troubles them none... The physical cost of their trade is a pittance compared to the exhileration of blowing other men to smithereens:
"This is horrible!" said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; "nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence! When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?"

"Those days are gone by," said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms. "It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy! Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan. But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton. By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!"

"Ay! and no war in prospect!" continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium. "Not a cloud on the horizon! and that too at such a critical period in the progress of the science of artillery! Yes, gentlemen! I who address you have myself this very morning perfected a model (plan, section, elevation, etc.) of a mortar destined to change all the conditions of warfare!"

"No! is it possible?" replied Tom Hunter, his thoughts reverting involuntarily to a former invention of the Hon. J. T. Maston, by which, at its first trial, he had succeeded in killing three hundred and thirty-seven people.

"Fact!" replied he. "Still, what is the use of so many studies worked out, so many difficulties vanquished? It's mere waste of time! The New World seems to have made up its mind to live in peace; and our bellicose Tribune predicts some approaching catastrophes arising out of this scandalous increase of population."

Devoid of purpose, the honorable members of the Gun Club devise a grand project for themselves: shooting the moon!

That it would become a passenger flight was not part of the original plan. Club president Impey Barbicane's idea was simply to build the biggest projectile weapon the world had ever seen. A starry-eyed and impractical Francophone, Michel Ardan by name, changed that with an imperious command that the canon's shot be changed into a conical shell to carry him, his dogs, an ark-load of livestock, and an array of unneccessary trinkets and knick-knacks. Such impropriety could only be met with the acclaim of an obliging public, who hung on every piece of news and rioted at every speech in the manner of an unbowed mob... From the Earth to the Moon is Jules Verne's comedic channeling of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Such amusing and light fare, spread across a brief number of pages and moving along at a rapid clip, makes for one of the French master's most readable works. It ends on a bit of a mystery though: since the point was to shoot the moon, From the Earth to the Moon ends after the great Columbiad gun fires its payload. The fate of Barbicane and Ardan would not be revealled until five years later with Round the Moon.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Excerpts from Gustave Doré's "Sketches"

French illustrator Gustave Doré earned his beginning as a newspaper caricaturist, which was amply reflected in his book Two Hundred Sketches Humorous and Grotesque. Here is another semi-prophetic collection of excerpts from the chapter "Sketches of Paris".


Until the resurrection of the journals takes place, advertisers
will be compelled to seek new methods of publicity.


The Journal pour Rire will continue to extend its influence,
and to penetrate into the most remote solitudes.


Our superfine livery servants, no longer satisfied with
the substantial wages they now demand, will expect
to be waited on by their masters.


Alexandre Dumas will invent a machine of fifty horse power,
by means of which he will manufacture his romances,
without seeing them, or touching them, or thinking of them.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

G.K. Chesterton on Ordinary People

Romance seeks to divide certain people from the lump of humanity, as the statue is divided from the lump of marble. We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer. Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys — instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies. That is what makes one so impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life, and demanding a larger sphere. Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions. What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who has seen a ghost.

I do not believe that there are any ordinary people. That is, I do not believe that there are any people whose lives are really humdrum or whose characters are really colourless. But the trouble is that one can so quickly see them all in a lump, like a land surveyor, and it would take so long to see them one by one as they really are, like a great novelist. Looking out of the window, I see a very steep little street, with a row of prim little houses breaking their necks downhill in a most decorous single file. If I were landlord of that street, or agent for that street, or policeman at the corner of that street, or visiting philanthropist making myself objectionable down that street, I could easily take it all in at a glance, sum it all up, and say, “Houses at £40 a year.” But suppose I could be father confessor to that street, how awful and altered it would look! Each house would be sundered from its neighbour as by an earthquake, and would stand alone in a wilderness of the soul. I should know that in this house a man was going mad with drink, that in that a man had kept single for a woman, that in the next a woman was on the edge of abysses, that in the next a woman was living an unknown life which might in more devout ages have been gilded in hagiographies and made a fountain of miracles. People talk much of the quarrel between science and religion; but the deepest difference is that the individual is so much bigger than the average, that the inside of life is much larger than the outside.

(via The Hebdomal Chesterton)

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Excerpt from Jules Henri Poincaré's "Science and Hypothesis" (1902)

To the superficial observer scientific truth is unassailable, the logic of science is infallible; and if scientific men sometimes make mistakes, it is because they have not understood the rules of the game. Mathematical truths are derived from a few self-evident propositions, by a chain of flawless reasonings; they are imposed not only on us, but on Nature itself. By them the Creator is fettered, as it were, and His choice is limited to a relatively small number of solutions. A few experiments, therefore, will be sufficient to enable us to determine what choice He has made. From each experiment a number of consequences will follow by a series of mathematical deductions, and in this way each of them will reveal to us a corner of the universe. This, to the minds of most people, and to students who are getting their first ideas of physics, is the origin of certainty in science. This is what they take to be the role of experiment and mathematics. And thus, too, it was understood a hundred years ago by many men of science who dreamed of constructing the world with the aid of the smallest possible amount of material borrowed from experiment.

But upon more mature reflection the position held by hypothesis was seen; it was recognised that it is as necessary to the experimenter as it is to the mathematician. And then the doubt arose if all these constructions are built on solid foundations. The conclusion was drawn that a breath would bring them to the ground. This sceptical attitude does not escape the charge of superficiality. To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.

...

Now, we daily see what science is doing for us. This could not be unless it taught us something about reality; the aim of science is not things themselves, as the dogmatists in their simplicity imagine, but the relations between things; outside those relations there is no reality knowable.

Such is the conclusion to which we are led; but to reach that conclusion we must pass in review the series of sciences from arithmetic and geometry to mechanics and experimental physics. What is the nature of mathematical reasoning ? Is it really deductive, as is commonly supposed? Careful analysis shows us that it is nothing of the kind; that it participates to some extent in the nature of inductive reasoning, and for that reason it is fruitful. But none the less does it retain its character of absolute rigour; and this is what must first be shown... Do we find it in nature, or have we our selves introduced it?

Monday, 10 November 2008

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

On account of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne is often considered to have grandfathered the "Lost World" genre more or less fathered by Sir H. Rider Haggard and possessing most excellent heirs in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Supposed to have drawn from countless hypotheses over time of a hollow earth populated with civilizations and dragons, Verne told the story an irredoubtable professor and his nephew who, along with their guide, discover an antediluvian sea buried deep within the crust of the earth, teeming over with prehistoric life.

The lineage is not quite so exact, however. Verne's story is not a haphazard fantasy in the vein of Burroughs, who's underground Pellucidar came by the inspiration of Journey. Burroughs - between Tarzan's jungle, John Carter's Mars, Pellucidar and the Land that Time Forgot - was a writer of Pulps and fantasies, after all, more comparable to the likes of a J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Nor is Journey about a primitive world that happened to survive in isolation, as per Haggard's mines.

The closest heir to Verne is Conan Doyle, whose Lost World of the Amazon was not so much an adventure across space as across time. The mighty rivers and rivulets of the Brazilian rain forest served as a time machine taking English readers back to their home territory millions upon millions of years ago. The Lost World is an immaculately researched and true Scientific Romance, through which the imagination is lead by palaeontological findings into antiquity.

This is the composure of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Along with Professor Liedenbrock, the reader is taken through the world's geologic past by way of a literal descent through its geologic strata. Going far beyond the billion-year section of a Grand Canyon, Verne takes us into the interior of the earth, going straight down through the tunnels and chasms of an extinct volcano. As we move through these strata, we get closer and closer to the beginnings of the earth.

From the outset, this examination is naught but the examination of remains. The explorers move from the pyroclastic fury of the volcano into the coal- and fossil-bearing sedimentary layers and back again into the granites and igneous rocks betraying the initial hand of the Creator. The deeper Liedenbrock and his company move, they discover the vast interior ocean somehow preserved by mysterious and inexplicable forces. Here, the examination becomes the experiential recreation of the antediluvian world.

Verne's choices are not arbitrary or built on a base of fantasy. Giant forests of mushrooms and balls of vaporous fire are not the products of fevered imagination, but rather, extrapolations on the conditions of primitive earth believed by the scientists of the period. Along the shores of the Central Sea are the array of prehistoric plant life and in its waters are numerous species of Mesozoic aquatic reptiles and Devonian bony fishes. Washed upon its beaches are the catalogue of fresh, unfossilized remains of primitive life, mastodons and human beings who are soon to appear in full flesh.

What makes Journey particularly interesting as a historical document is that it was written well-before modern geological knowledge, when palaeontology was still in its infancy and the surface of antiquity had only been fingernail-scratched by naturalists and anatomists. The science by modern standards is utter nonsense, the geological record skewed and still influenced by belief in the literality of Noah's deluge. What Verne presents is utterly irreconcilable to anything we know about geology and prehistory, which is perhaps what lends it to be being viewed more as a Lost World tale. Nevertheless, at the time the novel fit the bill as a kind of verbally illustrated textbook and still today provides a dramatic account of what science believed at the time.

That said, it is not as excellently written in that regard as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is more perfectly and absolutely a travelogue of the ocean depths. This may or may not be beneficial depending on one's point of view, as Verne defers far more often to crafting a story around his characters than in writing paragraphs upon paragraphs about fish and shipwrecks. The characters, such as they are, tend to carry one note through the text, be they the eccentric Professor Liedenbrock, his gastronomically-obsessed nephew Harry, or the perpetually stoic and taciturn guide Hans. However, the trials they are put through are very well executed, and a sense of oppression and claustrophobia weighs heavy over the text.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Excerpts from Gustave Doré's "Prophecies"

French illustrator Gustave Doré earned his beginning as a newspaper charicaturist, which was amply reflected in his book Two Hundred Sketches Humorous and Grotesque. The following images are excerpts from the chapter "Prophecies Concerning the Future of the French People", in which Doré attempts the Parisian fetish of prognostication.


Men of science, and more especially men of no science,
will continue to seek after aeronautic experiences,
and to build castles in the air.


And his Majesty King Æolus will continue to have a
good deal to say to inventors of aerial ships.

Photobucket
Colonists in Algier will continue to
experience varied amenities of colonial life.

Photobucket
The gold-seeker will find a country full
of charm and excitement for the naturalist,
and will end his days there very agreeably.

Monday, 3 November 2008

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870)

Due in no small part to the Disney film version of the story, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has emerged as the preeminent classic of Victorian Scientific Romances. On the foremost level it captures the spirit of the Voyages Extraordinaires to perfection, since as some have noted, it is primarily a novel about fish. The Nautilus is a plot device by which Verne takes his readers on an unparalleled oceanographic expedition through each of the seven seas. Over its 200-some pages, Captain Nemo is a tourguide through oceans, beneath icecaps, past famous shipwrecks, and beyond Atlantis.

Film versions have tended towards the character drama of the Nautilus' captives - Professor Aronnax, assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land - though their attempts to escape their maritime prison were a minimal aspect of the novel. Much has been drawn from Nemo's role as the tortured political refugee seeking revenge against and refuge from the rulers of the surface world. This is where the text encounters its greatest ambiguities, as Nemo reflects one of the fundamental anxieties of post-colonial society, which wishes to redress the endless ream of crimes that made possible its existence while simultaneously refusing to leave that advantage behind. On the one hand he is the avenger of the poor and oppressed, but on the other he is a colonialist par excellence.

Though professing a desire to escape the world above, he does so only in terms that allow him to take the fruits of that land with him. He fishes the sea for food, but trawls the land for treasures of books, paintings and other things that occupy his salon and library. His library, Aronnax estimates, contains some six or seven thousand volumes, which Nemo corrects at 12,000 with the addendum "These are the only ties which bind me to the earth." Not quite, as amongst the artistic treasures in Nemo's salon are
a Madonna of Raphael, a Virgin of Leonardo da Vinci, a nymph of Correggio, a woman of Titian, and Adoration of Veronese, an Assumption of Murillo, a portrait of Holbein, a monk of Velasquez, a martyr of Ribeira, a fair of Rubens, two Flemish landscapes of Teniers, three little "genre" pictures of Gérard Dow, Metsu, and Paul Potter, two specimens of Géricault and Prudhon, and some sea-pieces of Backhuysen and Vernet... Delacroix, Ingres, Decamp, Troyon, Meissonnier, Daubigny...

Add to this the composers whose works rest upon the organ - Weber, Rossini, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Meyerbeer, Hérold, Wagner, Auber, Gounod - and what we have is a cultured man of means possessing refined tastes. Feebly he objects that these "Masters have no age" and that "in the memory of the dead all chronological differences are effaced," invoking the timeless objective value of artistic excellence against the direct social, cultural, economic and chronological processes that permit artistic excellence.

The Nautilus which houses such treasures is not the unique product of a lone inventor's sweat and elbow-grease, but is itself very much the product of colonial industry. Nemo reveals his process:
Each separate portion... was brought from different parts of the globe. The keel was forged at Crensot, the shaft of the screw at Penn & Co.'s, London, the iron plates of the hull at Laird's of Liverpool, the screw itself at Scott's at Glasgow. The reservoirs were made by Cail & Co. at Paris, the engine by Krupp in Prussia, its beak in Motala's workshop in Sweden, its mathematical instruments by Hart Brothers, of New York, etc...

The most physical labour was in the jigsaw piecing together of the craft on a desert island. The final tally of Nemo's privileged escape from the terrors of the surface world? "It came therefore to £67,000, and £80,000 more for fitting it up, and about £200,000 with the works of art and the collections it contains." Keep in mind that he is speaking here of the investment capital, prior to having been able to access the riches of the ocean depths. In his life on land, Nemo was obviously a man of considerable wealth and education by anyone's standard. "Immensely rich, sir;" he tells Aronnax, "and I could, without missing it, pay the national debt of France."

The land is still required for the operation of the Nautilus' engines. Unlike the Disney film, which ties the electrical power of the ship to atomic power, Verne's device was a sodium extraction method that requires coal in the production of the sodium. The coal, Nemo proudly states, comes from beds beneath the ocean. The burning of the coal for the sodium needs must occur on land, in the shelter provided by the exhausted crater of an extinct volcano in the Atlantic.

Nowhere are Nemo's ties to the land more obvious than when he literally plants his flag and his name over a whole continent. Without any hint of the irony or hypocrisy, Nemo plants the black flag embroidered with a golden "N" on the snow and gravel of Antarctica and proclaims,
I, Captain Nemo, on this 21st day of March, 1868, have reached the south pole on the ninetieth degree; and I take possession of this part of the globe, equal to one sixth of the known continents.

When asked by Aronnax in whose name he lays this claim, Nemo brusquely replies "In my own, sir!" Finally as the sun slips out of sight on its half-year retreat, he bids it farewell:
Adieu, sun! Disappear, thou radiant orb! Rest beneath this open sea, and let a night of six months spread its shadows over my new domains!

Gone are any pretenses of escaping the land or its systems of colonialism and domination. Nemo becomes the sole monarch of the Antarctic, and happily so.

But for the most part, Nemo's chosen domain of colonial exploitation is the ocean, which serves as his personal political territory, larder and bank. On the one hand he speaks of the liberty of the depths, but on the other hand speaks of his ownership of them:
... the sea supplies all my wants. Sometimes I cast my nets in tow, and I draw them in ready to break. Sometimes I hunt in the midst of this element, which appears to be inaccessible to man, and quarry the game which dwells in my submarine forests. My flocks, like those of Neptune's old shepherds, graze fearlessly in the immense prairies of the ocean. I have a vast property there, which I cultivate myself, and which is always sown by the hand of the Creator of all things.

The society he creates aboard his ship, which makes for the efficient exploitation of the fruits de mer, is a definite mirror of the hierarchies above the waves. The library and salon are Nemo's alone, granted to the three captives, but with no indication that they are at the service of the Nautilus' mostly silent crew. This crew is a nameless presence that exists to serve the needs of the protagonists.

Repeatedly Nemo demonstrates compassion for the oppressed and impoverished. He reveals his ethnicity only briefly by identifying with an East Indian pearl diver he rescues from the clutches of a shark attack. He is again shown sending gold ingots up to another fisherman, as well as demonstrating the source of this wealth. Upon seeing the shipwrecks that supply Nemo with his millions in net worth, Aronnax remarks that he pities "the thousands of unfortunates to whom so much riches well distributed would have been profitable, whilst for them they will be forever barren." Nemo angrily retorts,
Do you think then, sir, that these riches are lost because I gather them? Is it for myself alone, according to your idea, that I take the trouble to collect these treasures? Who told you that I did not make a good use of it? Do you think I am ignorant that there are suffering beings and oppressed races on this earth, miserable creatures to console, victims to avenge? Do you not understand?

He hands charity to these suffering masses, and certainly claims solidarity, but the question must be raised as to the exact extent of the solidarity. What does this solidarity even mean when one has fled from the life conditions of the suffering into a perpetual escape of relative ease and luxury? Nemo's life is not one of real involvement in the struggle of others as one among them. As Aronnax observes, "I understand the life of this man; he has made a world apart for himself, in which he treasures all his greatest wonders."

Nemo is very much the embodiment of the modern, or post-modern, age. It is acutely aware of the processes of colonial exploitation of people and the environment, but at the same time still insistent on benefiting from those processes. It dispenses charity in the name of solidarity while setting a world apart for itself. In the end, Nemo is prohibited from reconciling this ambiguity to himself, as the symbolic Maelstrom sends a crazed spectre of himself and his ship to the bottom of the seas, from whence it will emerge in The Mysterious Island.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

First Anniversary of Voyages Extraordinaires

We've made it! Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age entered life in weblog form 169 posts and one year ago, November 1st, 2007. Thank you to everyone who has joined us for these extraordinary voyages, and we hope to keep you entertained and informed for a few years yet!

Through November we'll revisit the French tradition in the shape of Jules Verne, illustrator Gustave Doré, and scientist-philosopher Jules Henri Poincaré. Our anniversary also gives us an opportunity to once more meditate on the purposes behind Voyages Extraordinaires and the meaning of Scientific Romances.



In response to Randy Nakamura's Steampunk'd, or Humbug by Design, one proponent of Steampunk culture explained the attraction by saying,
This world we've made for ourselves is devoid of wonder. Our tech is sterile, soulless, and impersonal. Sometimes the monotony of it presses in so close it's hard to breathe. Which is why we tell stories.

When challenged, the same same user elaborated,
Perhaps I meant that no matter where we stand, we always know what lies over the next ridge. Googlemaps will tell us. Or we'll buy a Rand McNally product for 3.99 at the gas station. There's no discovery to be made on an individual level.

The loss of "Terra Incognita," the blank spots on the map, is not a new one. Nearly a century before, at the close of the Edwardian Era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discussed it in his novel The Lost World:
"Do you think, Sir, that you could possibly send me on some mission for the paper? I would do my best to put it through and get you some good copy."

"What sort of meesion had you in your mind, Mr. Malone?"

"Well, Sir, anything that had adventure and danger in it. I really would do my very best. The more difficult it was, the better it would suit me."

"You seem very anxious to lose your life."

"To justify my life, Sir."

"Dear me, Mr. Malone, this is very--very exalted. I'm afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past. The expense of the 'special meesion' business hardly justifies the result, and, of course, in any case it would only be an experienced man with a name that would command public confidence who would get such an order. The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere..."

Conan Doyle's solution was to create a blank spot by sending Edward Malone off with Professor Challenger to discover a plateau in South America filled with living dinosaurs. The rest of us in the real world are not so lucky.



However, one of the fundamental premises of this weblog is that the loss of romance caused by those filled-in spots on the map, by Rand-McNally and Google, is not an objective fact but a subjective perspective. Yes, the blank spots on the map have been filled in and that much is a fact, but how you react to that is another matter entirely. There most certainly is room left for individual discovery. If it were not so, we would truly be dead and there would be no more purpose to life.

Consider that we live in the Information Age, where nearly all information on every subject can be found at our fingertips with naught but a search engine or an online journal archive. That in itself should be amazing enough. Yet how many of us have actually availed ourselves of this opportunity to become Renaissance Women and Men? Consider that we can easily find satellite photographs and detailed road maps for nearly any place on earth. Yet how many of us have even explored vicariously through those maps, let alone actually been to those places? Project Gutenberg has placed every classic work of literature in an inexhaustible library, yet Mark Twain's sly adage that "a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read" is truer than ever.

The loss of romance and wonder in the world is entirely a matter of perspective. We may opt to be cynical and jaded and believe that the world doesn't have a new trick to show us, so we'll invent one by dressing up in costumes to pass the time. Or we may come to grasp the great truism that any place you have not actually been to is a blank spot on the map, any piece of information you have not learned is uncharted territory. In the words of our prophet G.K. Chesterton: "The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder."

Alienated with their societies, many will strike off for the furthest corners of the world where they can "go native" with peoples untouched by Western globalization... These same people will more likely than not be ignorant of the culture and history of their own backyards. Many will say that history is boring even though, when asked, they cannot with any clarity recite a single significant fact about it. It reminds one of the religious studies student who passes on the class in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because they think by virtue of being a Westerner, watching the news and being made to attend church on Easter and Christmas that they know all there is to know. They opt for the class in Eastern religions because they are exotic and exciting, but when they get around to Western religions, they discover that they really knew nothing at all about them and everything they thought they knew was wrong.



The premise of Voyages Extraordinaires is not that the world is an empty, closed-in space and that our only escape is through reinventing nostalgia in the funerary dance-macabre of declining modernity. We spend time winding our way through fictional stories of romantic past because they retune our minds to look at the present world in a new perspective. What we are doing is learning about our world through the lens of our history, moving into the future without leaving our culture and traditions behind. As Walt Disney said,
I go right straight out for the adult. As I say, for the honest adult. Not the sophisticates. Not these characters that think they know everything and you can't thrill them anymore. I go for those people that retain that something, you know, no matter how old they are; that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of the world of fantasy and things like that. I go for them.

If someone leaves this weblog refreshed and invigorated to investigate their past, learn something new or visit someplace they haven't been - even one right down the street - then we have done our job.

Once more we appeal to Chesterton, who illustrates this point by picking on poor old Pimlico:
A local pageant ought to be a festival of real local patriotism, which is one of the finest things in the world. It ought to be concerned with the real pride of real people in their town. Therefore, it ought never to consist of mere dead history; but, as far as possible, of living traditions. Legends should be honoured, if the legends are really current; lies should be honoured, if the lies are really told. Old wives’ tales should be represented, if the old wives really tell them. But mere historical coincidences of place and person, the mere fact that such-and-such a man did stand for a moment in such-and-such a spot — these we do not require in a popular pageant. Suppose they have a pageant in Pimlico — I hope they will. Then let Pimlico lift up in its pride anything that it is really proud of, if it be only the parish pump or the public-house sign. Let Pimlico parade whatever Pimlico delights to honour, whether it is its best donkey, its blackest chimney-sweep, or even its member of Parliament. That is all dignified and reasonable. But it is not reasonable to send somebody to read up dry history until he discovers that William Wallace stopped three minutes at Pimlico on his way to execution, or that on the spot now occupied by the Pimlico Police-court Caractacus made a speech to the blue and bellowing Britons. There is no patriotism in the thought that some alien and uninteresting person stood on the soil of Pimlico before Pimlico existed. The parish has no living legend of the thing. Whatever be the cause of that faint poetic melancholy that does seem to hover over Pimlico, it cannot be referred to any regrets at the fate of William Wallace. However blue the modern Britons may look and feel in that district, it has no connection with the blueness of ancient Britons. There is no true Pimlico sentiment in celebrating names which can be discovered in the British Museum Library, but cannot be discovered in Pimlico. If Pimlico has any real memories, I care not of what, of prizefighters or dandies, or gentlemen deservedly hanged, let her celebrate those traditions. If she has none, let her celebrate what is happening to her now, that at least she may have some traditions in the future.



It is simple to look on history with a nostalgia that wipes away the atrocities and misfortunes of it, imagining that it was somehow gilded in more than gold leaf. It is also simple to be entirely negative on it, thinking that it is all the stinking offal of cities and soot and poverty. It is a better thing to engage that history and understand how it has shaped us, our society, our families, to forgive and rectify the bad and the celebrate the good, true and beautiful... To understand history not as merely the lineage of things in the past, but as culture still living. That is as difficult and exciting a journey as any taken to a farflung region of the world.

Terra Incognita, the land unknown, is perhaps essential to the mental health and imagination of humanity. It spurs us onwards to improve ourselves and our understanding of the world. This unknown land, however, is not a physical location... It is not a place in our world but a place in our minds. Where there be dragons are the inconceivably vast untapped expanses of our learning and experience. Take a close inward look and see how much you do not know of the world around you and your place in its history. Then strike out to explore.