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Friday, March 31, 2006

The Science of Middle-Earth

Henry Gee has written The Science of Middle-Earth. (Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Press, 2004) A one-sentence summary of the book would be that Gee attempts to give natural, scientific explanations of Tolkien's fantastic phenomena. He seems quite familiar with Tolkien, including his less popular works, and with science. (He should be. This source says he is a senior editor of Nature, arguably the most important science periodical in English.)

Here's a sample:

. . . Elves have a genetic constitution that is not only resistant to infectious disease, but also those diseases of aging, such as cancer, that seem to be related to a diminution of the body's resistance to oxidative stress. Elvish versions of DNA-repair enzymes, as well as catalase or superoxide dismutase those enzymes whose task it is to combat reactive oxygen species -- must be potent indeed. Elvish lives are also prolonged by caloric restriction alongside slow metabolism. . . . Elves . . . while they enjoy the occasional banquet, largely seem to exist on a diet of water, lembas, and thin air . . . and can go for long periods without visible means of sustenance or even sleep. This suggests a highly efficient metabolism in which the production of reactive oxygen species is kept to a minimum. Because of this, Elves always manage to look young and beautiful, signs of age being revealed only in their eyes. (p.169)

Four criticisms leap to mind. First, surely Tolkien didn't know about most of this, and, most likely, wouldn't have cared if he did know. Second, if Gee is correct, why don't the DNA-repair enzymes work in and around the eyes, too? Third, there's a comma missing. Fourth, and most importantly, all these explanations spoil the mythical qualities of Tolkien's work, at least if you think about them much, and the mythical qualities are the whole point of his writing.

Gee is not afraid to speculate. He supposes that dragons synthesize diethyl ether, which ignites when passing down their throats. He considers the question of a vertebrate with six limbs (in the case of dragons, four legs and two wings). He speculates about homeotic mutations, which can cause extra appendages in insects, and thinks that having four limbs became fixed in vertebrates by chance -- it could have been six. He speculates about other matters, such as the physical nature of mithril, (he thinks it's a compound), about how palantíri and Silmarils might have been constructed, about how spiders could be so large (animals with exoskeletons and respiratory structures like insects and spiders don't seem able to grow much larger than we know them, in spite of the way they are portrayed in some horror movies), and about elvish technology. (They don't understand what the hobbits mean when they ask the Elves about magic. They may have had, at least in the time of Fëanor, sophisticated technology.) He admits failure in explaining how the One Ring "works," which I find comforting, after all the other magic he has explained away, or tried to.

In fairness to Gee, he is concerned not only with scientific phenomena, but with other things, such as the theological implications of Orcs, which implications depend, in large part, on their origin. (Human, elvish, animal, or something else? Tolkien isn't clear on this.)

There is an introduction by David Brin, who is not fully in favor of Gee's enterprise. Brin, like many others, is convinced that Tolkien was nostalgic, and not a friend of the "progress" produced by applying scientific knowledge. Brin, a notable author of science fiction (Kiln People, Startide Rising, and others), has written an article on this subject, which is thought-provoking and well worth reading.

See here for my own web pages on Middle-Earth.

Gee's book was interesting, but non-essential. I'm glad I read it.

Thanks for reading.

5 comments:

Adam said...

It sounds interesting to me. I'm not one who holds to the notion that understanding how an eagle flies ruins the experience of watching it. Besides, explaining how a dragon might breathe fire doesn't diminish the mystery involved in reading about a mythical creature that actually does breathe fire.

On a slightly related note, I saw this article today - we may see Smaug in person before long:

Here be dragons


It's about a research lab using computer models to affect changes in a virtual embryonic cell to create representations of mythical animals. This virtual DNA could then by synthesized and inserted into an embryonic cell using clonic techniques, thus growing a new creature.

It's technically possible, but not very likely, to produce something resembling a dragon in this way (using their example). I would like to know who will teach the creature to use its wings. Unless they can induce flight-specific mutations in the brain, I feel the wings would drag at the creature's side, useless.

That particular fact may acutally cause Darwinian/Naturalistic Evolutionists some worry, as well.

Thought you'd like to know.

Adam said...

Then again, tomorrow is April 1.

:)

Martin LaBar said...

Even if it isn't an April Fool joke, you raise a valid point about genetically engineered dragon's wings. It would require wings, muscles, blood vessels, neurons and proper connections between them, and, as you indicate, probably some sort of flying instinct, or training.

My point, which was not well put, was that some of the phenomena in Tolkien were supposed to have been produced by beings more powerful than humans, or elves, presumably by what we would call magic.

Thanks for reading.

Catez said...

Not sure wich horror movies you were referring to. I don't watcvh horrors usually but did see Arachnophobia - the spiders in it were real. They are called Avondale spiders (not their actual species name) and are from NZ. I've seen them here - they are huge, and although harmless to humans they look awfully scary! They are bigger than what you might consider a nomal size (but nowhere near as big as Toliens creation).

Martin LaBar said...

Maybe I should have said "larger than we know them, from NZ or elsewhere!"

Thanks for your comments.