The third episode of Wonders of Life had the theory of natural selection as its theme, but once again didn't approach it from the direction I expected. Instead Cox started by talking about how the most important element for life is carbon, because of its versatile chemical properties that allow it to form large & complex molecules with a variety of other elements. These molecules include proteins (which are the building blocks of organisms) and DNA (the instruction set). So he started by telling us about carbon being formed in stars, and then talked about how carbon in the atmosphere gets into organisms. The first stage is photosynthesis - where plants take CO2 and energy from the sun and turn them into sugar (a molecule with a carbon backbone) and O2. From here Cox moved on to talk about how the carbon that the plants are made up of move through the food chain - a lot of animals eat plants, but they are hard to digest because a lot of the carbon is bound up in molecules like cellulose & lignin which are important structural parts of plants. Termites solve this problem by farming fungus in their colonies, which digests the wood they bring it and then the termites eat the fungus. Giraffes in common with other ruminants have a complicated digestive system with multiple stomachs, one of which contains bacteria which help break down cellulose. Other animals take the shortcut of eating animals instead of plants - there was some great footage here of a leopard coming to pay a visit to the (very open!) car that Cox & camera crew were sitting in. I don't think I'd want to go on safari, that'd freak me out!
Having established how animals get their basic components (to some extent) and talked about foodchains, Cox now moved back to DNA and how come there are so many different sorts of organisms. First he gave a brief description of how DNA codes for proteins (with not much detail) and then we talked about what drives mutations. He name checked the sorts of causes, and showed us one - cosmic rays. That was a pretty neat experiment, I don't know that I'd seen a cloud chamber before and it was cool to see the cosmic rays passing through the vapour in the tank! He then talked about the incredibly high number of combinations of possible DNA molecules that there are if everything was down to random chance - most of which would be instructions for organisms that couldn't live. So there must be something that constrains the set of combinations, and that something is natural selection.
I found his explanations here to be rather muddy to be honest, perhaps because I would've approached the subject differently if I was doing the explanation, perhaps because it was a high level overview of something biological told by a physicist so something got lost in the translation. But we got neat footage of lemurs in Madagascar, so that made up for it for me (and I hope that other people watching it who didn't know what he was talking about in advance found it comprehensible). The gist of it was right, anyway - that variation between organisms affects their chances of survival (like having a slightly longer thinner finger for an aye-aye makes it easier for it to dig out insects from trees so that makes it easier for it to get food and to stay alive). If something survives more, it has more offspring so there are more like it in the population. And over time these changes can build up (the middle finger of an aye-aye looks really very different to that of other lemurs), and if the population is isolated in some way from the rest of its species then they will become a different species and no longer able to interbreed with the originals. Isolation can be geographical (he showed us how the break up of the supercontinent Gondwana had left Madagascar isolated for tens of millions of years), but it can also be within a geographical area by lifestyle or habitat. (After complaining about his muddy explanations, I think mine probably are too, ah well.)
The fourth episode was all about size, and how the laws of physics affect the size of organisms and the size of organisms affects which laws of physics are important to the organism's everyday life. He started by swimming with great white sharks (he was in a cage so quite safe, but frankly I would really rather not have that experience personally), and using them to illustrate how the effort required to move through water constrains the shape an animal is - sharks, as with fish and aquatic mammals, are streamlined. He also talked about how living in water allows animals to grow larger, because the water counteracts some of the effects of gravity.
This moved nicely onto a discussion of how on land as animals get bigger they need bigger skeletons to support themselves, and this constrains the sorts of shapes they can be (big animals are proportionally bulkier) and the ways they can move. He illustrated this with Australian marsupials, and worked in an explanation of how kangaroos' locomotion is so efficient because their elastic tendons store the kinetic energy that they have when they land, and then use that to spring back up again. But the main point of this sequence was to show us the relative femur (thigh bone) sizes of various marsupials both living & extinct. As the length of the bone increases (so the animal is bigger) then the cross-section increases significantly more (i.e. a five-fold increase in length but a forty-fold increase in cross-sectional area) - this is because the mass of the animal has increased in proportion with its volume, and volume increases as the cube of length.
Cox then turned from animals our sort of size (i.e. mice to elephants ...) where gravity is the dominant force, and moved to the much smaller scale of insects. Particularly amusing in this bit was him dropping a grape then a watermelon off a balcony to demonstrate that small things bounce and bigger things ... don't. He talked about how this is due both to smaller things falling a bit more slowly (due to friction with the air) and also because big things have more kinetic energy that must be released when they hit the ground (because it's proportional to mass, I think). And this is done via exploding in the case of the watermelon. So gravity isn't the big thing for an insect, instead it's the electromagnetic force, which controls the interactions between molecules - like the way you can pick up a small piece of paper by wetting your finger so the paper sticks to it. This principle is what lets insects walk up walls or across ceilings.
He then went on to talk about what the smallest possible size for an organism is. First for animals - of which the smallest known is a wasp that's about 0.5mm long, and is a parasite that lays its eggs in the eggs of a moth that feeds on & lays eggs on macademia nuts. And then for bacteria (skipping viruses because they're not really alive) - where the smallest possible size is 2nm (I think) which is constrained by the size of atoms. You can't be smaller than the volume necessary to fit all your cellular machinery, and those molecules are the size they are because their atoms are the size they are.
And then Cox talked a bit about how size affects metabolism, and how that in turn affects longevity. Smaller things have a higher surface area to volume ratio (because as something gets longer its surface area goes up by the square of the length change but its volume goes up by the cube). And this means they lose more heat than a larger version. And if you're an endotherm (like people are) and generate your heat inside you, then the more you lose the more energy you must use to replace it. So smaller animals tend to have a higher metabolism and generate more energy from more food more quickly. Bigger animals both don't need so much energy (if they're endotherms) but also there are other constraints that mean that they need to slow down their metabolism. I think one of those was that it takes longer for things like nutrients to get through the circulatory system and so cells at the periphery can't run too fast otherwise they'd burn up all their resources before they could be replenished (I'm not sure I've remembered that right though). Then Cox finished up by using crabs to illustrate that things with a slower metabolism tend to live longer (and this segment made J shudder because he hates crabs!).
The second episode of Brazil with Michael Palin was called "Into Amazonia" and covered (roughly speaking) the north west of the country, including the capital (Brasilia) and some of the indigenous people. The programme was bookended by the two tribes he visited - starting with the Yanomami who are very isolated and trying to remain so and ending with the Wauja who are assimilating some bits of modern Western culture while still preserving their own culture. The leaders of both peoples are worried about the impact that government projects (such as dams and mines) will have on their way of life, and frustrated about the lack of consultation.
Palin also visited one of the last remaining rubber tappers - rubber was a major export from Brazil before the British got hold of some seeds and grew rubber trees in Malaysia. A bit of a sad segment, because the industry has just dried up & gone away. As a counterpoint I think this was where he got to swim with the pink river dolphins, which right up till they showed up I had assumed were going to be some sort of euphemism (particularly with the solemn young man explaining how sometimes girls turn up pregnant & they say the dolphins did it)!
I'm not going to run through everywhere he went or everything he saw, but the other bit that stuck in my mind was Fordlandia. This was a planned town, with a Ford factory, and it was supposed to be a perfect America (this is back in the 1920s). But what it was was a perfect failure, and all the remains today are some abandoned ruined buildings in the jungle.
This is the sequel to "A Discovery of Witches" which I read a while ago (but haven't written up anywhere). It took me a little while to get back into this world & story. The basic premise is that creatures live among us - witches, vampires & daemons. Witches are magic workers, as you'd expect, and it breeds true in families. Vampires drink blood, are immortal and must be made by another vampire, but the rest of the legends (like inability to walk in daylight) aren't true. Daemons appear to be more complicated (can be born to human families, even), and are very creative & erratic - in this book Christopher Marlowe is a daemon. The creatures are ruled over by the Congregation, with rules about fraternisation between creature types and rules intended to keep them secret from ordinary humans.
The plot is about Diana Bishop (a witch & historian) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire), a mysterious book and the origins of creatures. The first book was the two of them meeting, falling in love, marrying, finding the book & figuring out there was something big going on. In this book they've travelled back into the past so that Diana can learn how to use her powers away from the dangers in the present. They go back to 1590 and slot into Matthew's life at that time, but obviously it's not all plain sailing. First Diana has to learn to fit in with Elizabethan life, and then they get caught up in bits of the politics (both human and creature) of the day. There was some handwave about how present-day-Matthew's arrival in the past meant that past-Matthew vanished for the duration (and presumably will be back once they've left), which just serves to leave me wondering if he'd have a hole in his memory afterwards? Or memories from the wrong Matthew? Or of the things he would've done if not displaced? Paradox is one of the things that's a thread running through this book - each section of the story ends with a chapter set back in the present day as little ripples run up through time. Finding miniatures Hilliard painted of the two of them, finding a day book Diana wrote etc. And it's clear by the end of the book that they'd always gone back to 1590 and lived there for months, but it's also clear that this isn't the way it was when the book started ... probably.
The thing I'm not keen on in these books is the relationship between the two main characters. It's all told from Diana's point of view and I just don't see what she sees in Matthew. He treats her like a child in many ways, ordering her around, telling her she doesn't know enough to keep herself safe. And he's so much older than her, and in 1590 is close to the centre of both creature & human politics, that he's right too. She's stumbling through a time period she only knows from books (she is a historian tho, and this is her time period of interest, so she's better off than the average witch would be). And she's not a trained witch yet (for complicated reasons). And their marriage is forbidden by the Congregation (as a general thing, not specifically this witch & this vampire). But even when she asserts herself he's still dismissive - for example, she married him during the last book, she's insistent she wants to be his wife and has first hand knowledge of the risk but wants it anyway. And still he spends half this book keeping her at arms length, mostly because he doesn't really think she knows what she's doing. But equally, he's the one who actually gets them into most of the trouble they get into in this book. He rushes in without a plan and without giving anyone quite enough information, time after time. An example of this is that he plans for them to go back to 1590, and neglects to tell her who his friends in that time are or what his occupation is. And she's the one who improvises the way back out of trouble when his lack of plan causes problems. She's the one who finds herself a teacher after his attempts backfire. So why can't he respect her for the intelligence & sense he supposedly loves, rather than trying to stop her using them? To be fair, he's called on that by various of the secondary characters as well, so he's not being held up by the author as a paragon of virtue.
But don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed both these books. I liked the portrayal of the Elizabethan era, and that Diana has culture shock and Matthew slips back almost (but not quite) into the attitudes of the time. I think Harkness has a deft touch with intertwining the creature politics and the human ones, things that make sense in our world as human things are recast as part of creature politics and make sense that way too. I liked the way that Diana's inexplicable & strange inability to learn how to use her magic turned out to have a good reason behind it. And one that made travelling to 1590 turn out to be the best possible way to have done things. I also like how something spoilery happens - one of those scenarios where clearly this will work out in one way because Plot and then it doesn't at all, it's much more realistic. I think actually that might be the main thing I like about these books - yes, in some ways it's urban fantasy with witches & vampires, but it's got that grounding element of realism. And I suppose for all my rant about Matthew above, he's realistic too.
I think it will be a trilogy, but I don't know when the next book is out. Presumably next year not this year, at least.
I'll admit I was a little dubious in advance of May's Essex Egyptology Group meeting - I don't really watch many films, so a whole talk about Ancient Egypt in the cinema had the potential to be completely incomprehensible or boring or both. Thankfully, it was neither :) And this was down to the fact that the speaker, John J Johnston, was very entertaining and good at explaining what he was talking about even if you hadn't ever seen the film in question.
His talk had three main strands, which were those listed in the title - mummies, asps (i.e. films about Cleopatra) and far too much eye make-up (everything else). The first half concentrated on films about mummies. I knew there was a film called "The Mummy", what I hadn't realised is that there were several films with that name each of which came complete with sequels. Johnston took us through them chronologically, using a few stills and some entertaining descriptions to give us the flavour of each film. He concentrated on how they portrayed the mummy itself and on whether the portrayal of ancient Egypt in the film was even remotely authentic. Most weren't - more a flavour & a setting than any attempt to get it right. This section also included the only film out of the ones he talked about that I've actually watched - Stargate - though I'm not sure how it fit in to this part.
After coffee and cake we were fortified enough to continue on with films about Cleopatra, of which there have also been several each more lavish than the last. I think the first three he talked about were each the most expensive film then made ... and that's before he got to the one where Elizabeth Taylor starred as Cleopatra which was a very expensive film. In this section he was initially concentrating on how Cleopatra was portrayed (politically astute? manipulative seductress?) and again on the level of authenticity. Some of these films did rather better on that than the mummy ones did, but he had some amusing tales of advisers with no apparent credentials just a lot of chutzpah or advisers with credentials but no influence. And then we got onto the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra, which was originally conceived of as a remake of the very first Cleopatra film from 1917 (which starred Theda Bara). It got off to a rocky start, as apparently Elizabeth Taylor didn't really want to do it so asked for outrageous sums of money and added all sorts of riders to her contract in the hopes they'd find someone else. But they didn't, and then she got ill & nearly died and by the time she recovered they had to recast the other parts because those actors had moved on to other films. And the whole thing just kept spiralling out of control - 18 months of filming in Italy, lavish sets and more & more scenes. Eventually it finished at 8 hours long, and the studio had spent far more than they could afford. It did get cut down to around 4 hours before release, and Johnston was pretty scathing about the quality of the whole thing in terms of acting, story & authenticity.
Moving on from Cleopatra we came to "far too much eye make-up", which is one of the easy ways that a film can indicate it's about ancient Egypt. And so one of the themes of this section was expectations, and how a film-maker needs to meet these even if doing so makes the film less authentic - people interested in Egyptology aren't really the target audience, instead it's the general film-going public. And the other thread that tied this section together was Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments, which spent ages in pre-production and so several other film-makers tried to pre-empt him by bringing out a film about Egypt first. And expectations tripped up some of these films. If you go to see a film about a mummy you know what plot you're getting (monster! horror!), ditto with Cleopatra. He also used the Romans as an example where there's a canonical plot (in 1940s & 1950s cultural expectations) - Romans persecute Christians. But there's no expected plot for a film about Khufu and the Great Pyramid or for Akhenaten, so the films tended to flail around looking for a story. Cecil B. DeMille obviously had an expected plot for his film, Ten Commandments, and also put a lot of effort into authenticity (even if some things had to be changed for story telling reasons). Johnston made the point that this was done to enhance the power of the film's underlying message, if it's authentic then this is "how it really was". And he pointed out some of the ways that DeMille was using this film to preach a message to the audience - for instance all the good guys are played by Americans, some of the imagery for the Egyptian gods is reminiscent of imagery from Communist states (in a subtle way, nothing overt & obvious).
I don't think I've done the talk justice with this write-up, it was both laugh-out-loud funny at times and thought provoking.
Gnosticism was part of the growth of secret knowledge cults in the first few centuries AD, flourishing in the 2nd & 3rd Centuries. Although not necessarily associated with Christianity it is best known as a different interpretation of Christianity, and the mainstream Christian Church reacted against what they regarded as heresy in ways that are still part of Christianity today. The three experts who talked about this on In Our Time were Martin Palmer (International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture), Caroline Humfress (Birkbeck College, University of London) and Alastair Logan (University of Exeter).
This was a programme that constantly threatened to runaway with itself - I think there were three times that Melvyn Bragg had to stop some tangent (often that he'd started) by saying it was a topic for another programme. And they ended a little abruptly having pretty much run out of time. The jumping off point for the programme was that in 1945 a set of documents were found buried in Egypt, and whilst some were burnt for fuel some made their way to scholars. These documents turned out to be Gnostic "gospels" and this revolutionised scholarship about Gnosticism as prior to this time it was mostly known through the writings of Christians explaining how terrible it was.
So first they talked about what Gnosticism was. Which isn't quite as easy to pin down as all that - it wasn't so much an organised religion as a collection of revelations and beliefs that share commonalities. And that's part of the point. One of the commonalities is that they saw the world as divided into the material world (bad) and the spirit world (good), and the route to salvation or enlightenment was to awake from the cares of the flesh to a more spiritual awareness. It spread across a lot of Europe & Asia, and was banned by many authorities both religious & secular, but the experts mostly discussed it in the context of its interactions with and reactions to Christianity (I think that might be where Gnosticism in general is centred, but I'm not sure if that's the case or if that's just where they chose to focus).
Humfress told us about the creation myth that (with variations) is common throughout Gnosticism. In this there is an unknowable divine God from whom are generated various emanations of this divinity, the number varies between tellings of the myth. The last of these emanations was Sophia - Wisdom - and she desired to see the divine without his permission or knowledge. Her efforts to do so created a rent in the spiritual world and through this rent or veil is created the demiurge Yaltabaoth who creates the material world. Yaltabaoth is pretty definitely associated with the god of the Old Testament, and is pretty definitely cast as evil (the material world is Bad). This was the point where J & I were saying "oh so that's why it was banned in lots of places" ;) Once Adam was created he had no soul, so Sophia sent her daughter Zoey to be Eve and to tempt Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge. All humans as descendents of Adam & Eve have a spark of the divine within them, their soul, and if they awake to this knowledge then they will join with the divine unknowable God.
They were keen to stress the point that in mainstream Christian tradition one is saved and redeemed from one's own sins - guilt is an important part of the deal. You did do wrong, and Jesus died to save you from the consequences. But the Gnostic tradition is about salvation through awakening to knowledge of your true self. You aren't guilty of sin, your previous behaviour was the result of the demiurge who made you part of the material world. And once you are awakened it's like you were drunk and are now sober & see how the thoughts you had before weren't profound but were the result of the state you were in.
Gnosticism involved secret knowledge & initiation into the mysteries, but once you were initiated & anointed you were a Christ and you were an equal of anyone else who'd been anointed. This is very different from the hierarchical order that was developing within mainstream Christianity. And in fact the reaction against the Gnostics was part of what strengthened that heirarchy - making themselves different from the "heretics".
They also talked about the impact that discovering Gnostic texts had. In academia it had a profound impact on how people interpreted the Gospels that made it into the canonical texts. And lead to re-interpretations of early Christianity (or "Christianities"). And in the more popular world it's also had an impact. They were saying how it has influenced New Age thought & philosophies, but also the interpretation of the place of women in the Church. Particularly in light of the Gnostics having a trinity that consisted of Father, Mother & Christ, and I think they were implying that part of the Church sidelining women was reacting against the Gnostics.
It was definitely an programme where you could see that the 45minutes just skimmed the surface of the subject.
The second episode of Archaeology: A Secret History covered the 18th & 19th Centuries. Two linked themes running through this era were the move from treasure hunting to scientific archaeology and the the move from wanting to own the past to wanting to understand the past. The third thread that tied the programme together was the move from investigating the Classical World of the Greeks & Romans, to looking further back for the history of civilisation before that era, or even in other places.
Miles started the programme by walking through the tunnels dug by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre's excavation of Herculaneum. This Spanish engineer was the first serious excavator of the city, but he wasn't interested in the things that a modern archaeologist would be interested in. Instead he was after statues and other fine objects. So there are places where statues were taken out of their niches in the theatre they discovered, but the plinths they stood on are still there with the inscriptions that tell us who the statues were. That was considered boring.
In a similar treasure hunting vein was Napolean's survey of Egypt. This was a military venture, but as well as an army he brought surveyors and they catalogued the country too. And took the best bits of the statues and so on that they found, planning to ship them back to France for the glory of the French Empire. When the British defeated the French they took the statuary etc back to England instead, for the glory of the British Empire. This statuary is the start of the British Museum's Egyptian collections - and a lot of it is still on display in the Egyptian Statue Gallery at the BM, including the Rosetta Stone. The deciphering of hieroglyphs (using the Rosetta Stone as its starting point) not only let archaeologists learn about Egypt itself but also showed that civilisation existed long before the time of the Greeks and Romans. This was further backed up by the deciphering of cuneiform, and excavations in Mesopotamia.
Miles also talked briefly about Belzoni - the Italian circus strongman who excavated statues in Egypt and brought them back to Europe - but then we moved on to the discovery of ancient civilisations in the jungles of Mexico & South America. I forget which site in particular he showed us (I think it was a Mayan one), but the take home message was that this showed archaeologists that the history civilisation was more complicated than a simple progression from primitive to advanced in a single place.
In the 19th Century archaeology began to become an academic subject, no longer the sole preserve of rich enthusiasts or empire builders after a bit of bling to prove their worth. Miles talked about this a bit (with some footage shot in Cambridge), but then the last two personalities he told us about were still more in the gentleman amateur mould than academics. The first of these was Heinrich Schliemann, a German who went looking for Troy. Received wisdom at the time was that the Troy of Homer was a myth and had never really existed, but Schliemann found the site of Troy and then dug down past more recent remains to uncover much older sites. He actually overshot and the stuff he dug up was older than the era that Homer wrote about. By today's standards he was a bit of a cowboy - having his wife dress up in the jewellery he found was probably the least of his sins. He is also thought to've added items to the cache of items that he identified as Priam's treasure, and although not mentioned in the programme J remembers reading something about individual items that may've been altered to look more like what they were "supposed to". But the take home message for this programme was that Schliemann pioneered using scientific techniques to investigate the objects he'd found. In particular analysis of the composition of the gold that made up the objects from Troy and the gold mask in Mycenae - and he believed this showed a link between the two settlements (necessary if you're looking for proof of the Trojan War).
And Miles finished the programme by talking about Pitt-Rivers, which was particularly good from our perspective as we've just listened to the In Our Time episode about him (post). Rather than mention the museum Miles told us about Pitt-Rivers' excavations, showing us not only a marker stone he put up on his land where he'd done an excavation but also the maps, models, detailed drawings and descriptions of what he'd found. Pitt-Rivers was a pioneer of systematic documented excavations. He details things like precisely where he found an artifact and recorded all the things he found not just the "interesting" ones. He was also more interested in the everyday artifacts, all in all a long way from the sort of excavation done by earlier people like de Alcubierre whose excavation of Herculaneum opened the programme.
So after the Crimson Horror we get a Nightmare in Silver ... probably coincidence but the juxtaposition of titles amused me.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:
Loved Angie. Such a teenage girl, so keen to pretend to be cooler & more sophisticated & more grownup than to actually enjoy any of this. Even though she clearly does enjoy things. And she's also the only one (alive at the end) to figure out the Emperor before he reveals himself. So she's actually paying attention under that veneer of cooler-than-thou. And that's set up well too, although I didn't notice that clue till she pointed it out at the end. I did call it that Porridge was the Emperor tho, based on the conversation with Captain Alice Ferrin - he had to be Emperor or Crown Prince or something of that ilk.
Liked the parallels with the Doctor & the Emperor, and call backs to what we know of the Doctor's role in the Time War. Feeling like a monster for doing what needed to be done (because it was horrific), knowing what it was like to push the button & take the responsibility (and doing it again too), lonely on your own at the top. I wonder if the "you can't run away forever" bit is significant for the finale? After all the Doctor is still busy writing himself out of the universe's records (as this episode also reminded us).
I didn't spot any Sixth Doctor references, did anyone else? Even tho I'm pretty sure I watched all of the episodes with Colin Baker as they came out I'm not sure how much I remember. Doctor fighting against a twisted version of himself referencing the Trial of a Timelord, maybe? I actually thought we'd got a Seventh Doctor era visual call back or two in this episode - Clara with the gun v. Cybermen/Ace with guns v. Daleks, Clara with the spiky mace/Ace with the baseball bat. But this might be coloured by the fact that I stood in Waterstones earlier this week & read The Remembrance of the Daleks, which is a Seventh Doctor/Ace story with the baseball bat & a rocket launcher. And Ace is still the best ... what can I say, I was exactly the right age at the time and she blew shit up so she has to be the coolest ;)
References to loads of other things tho - Charlie & the Chocolate Factory for the whole set up, something Alice in Wonderland/White Rabbit-like about the dude who leads them off to be entertained, the Mechanical Turk, also the Borg & being assimilated.
Liked Clara being left in charge and rising to the occasion. She really was in charge, and doing as well as she could as were the other guys in the punishment platoon. Even the Captain was trying to do the right thing, even if it would've killed everyone including our heroes it was actually the right choice - how could she rely on the Doctor to pull off the impossible? Of course, because he's the centre of the story we know he'll save the day, but the Captain doesn't.
I liked the Doctor & the Cyberplanner fighting against each other inside the Doctor's head, although I think it went on a bit long at times. I did like the "only way to win is not to play the game" solution that the Doctor built out of the Cyberplanner's sense of superiority & lack of flexibility. I also liked the way Clara can tell which one it is, that was amusingly done.
Nice touch at the end where we see that Clara is really carrying on her normal life, just going out on
datesadventures with the Doctor every Wednesday night. I guess the TARDIS is co-operating with returning her properly to the right place & time each week. And maybe the adventures aren't necessarily in the same order for the Doctor as for Clara.
And looks like we get are getting a proper finale not waiting till the special later this year. Wonder what will happen there :) (Don't spoil in comments anywhere please, J is extremely spoilerphobic & hasn't even watched the trailer.)
Well, Brian Cox's Wonders of Life series really didn't start how I expected it to do. I suppose in retrospect it should've been obvious that a physicist would talk about the physics & chemistry of life rather than the biology! This first episode was asking the question "What is life?". He made a brief detour to mention that this question is typically answered by reference to a soul or other supernatural cause, but then started to talk about the laws of physics and how life exists as a result of the ways these laws work (in the same way that a star exists because of how the laws of physics work).
Life probably got started in hydrothermic vents in the ocean - which are alkaline environments. The ocean of the time (3.5 or 4 billion years ago, or so) was slightly acidic, so there was a proton gradient set up between the alkaline waters of the vent & the acidic waters around about it. The protons moving along this gradient releases energy. This is the same mechanism by which batteries work - in this case the heat of the earth's core drives the setting up of the gradient, and because of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) all of this energy must be released when the protons move down the gradient. The hydrothermic vents are also rich in organic molecules, and the energy drives the chemical reactions between these molecules. And the first life arises from that chemistry. All life uses proton gradients to get its energy - he showed us pictures of mitochondria from a variety of animals, but the same is also true of prokaryotes (which have no mitochondria).
At first glance life violates the second law of thermodynamics - that the universe tends towards disorder. Living things are obviously complex and over the last few billion years they've got more rather than less complex. I never quite follow this argument (physics really isn't my thing) but I think what it boils down to is that whilst an organism is more complex it's achieved that in a way that disorders its surroundings more than they would otherwise be. So yes living organisms are localised pockets of complexity but the universe as a whole is still more disordered than before.
He then moved on to talk about how come life isn't still just chemical soup in rocks. And what keeps organisms the same as their parent organisms. The answer is DNA - the instruction set for making an organism. I was much amused by his DNA precipitation experiment - take cheek cells, add detergent, salt and alcohol, and hey presto! you have white strands of precipitated DNA in the alcohol layer in your test tube. That's pretty much the basis of a lot of molecular biology labwork - only you don't use fairy liquid or vodka. He then ran through the basic high level structure of DNA and talked about how it codes for proteins. And then proteins are both the building blocks & machinery of cells and organisms. The great thing about DNA as a molecule to store the instructions is how stable it is - he quoted 1 error per billion bases (I think) when duplicating DNA which is a pretty low error rate. And relatively small differences in the instruction set are enough to generate very different organisms - he pointed out we're only 1% different from chimpanzees, 1.6% different from gorillas etc.
The second episode was all about senses. After a bit of scene setting he talked about paramecium, which are single celled organisms that swim about using wee hairs (cilia) in their cell membrane. When it bumps into something in the water the little hairs reverse direction and it moves away again. It does this using proton gradients - normally there's a difference between inside & outside the cell, and when the paramecium touches something the membrane deforms & this opens channels in the membrane and the proton gradient equalises. The energy generated by this is used to switch the direction of the cilia and to open more channels (I think) which means the change in direction propagates right round the cell. This is the basis of how all our senses transmit the information back to the brain - this is how nerve cells work.
Cox then spent a bit of time talking about how different animals have different senses (and different dominant senses). Different species therefore sense the world differently to us - our dependence on sight & hearing, and our ranges of sight & hearing, aren't some objective way of detecting the world. Like all other animals we have the senses that we need for our evolutionary niche. In this bit I was particularly amused by the footage from some experiments on frogs - if a small rectangle is move past a frog in a horizontal orientation it goes nuts trying reach it & eat it. If the same thing is moved past in a vertical orientation, the frog doesn't even seem to see it. When it looks like a worm, then it's detected, when it doesn't look like lunch it's not worth wasting energy paying attention to.
He then talked about human hearing while sat on a boat near some alligators. The point of the segment was that despite the little bones in our ears looking like they're designed for the purpose, actually they're re-purposed gill arches. And part way through this long process of re-purposing the bones are the reptiles, whose jaw bones are also re-purposed gill arches. So the alligators were illustration ...I still wouldn't've got that close to them myself!
And obviously he talked about sight. Rhodopsin, a pigment that reacts to light, has been around in organisms for a long time - way back to cyanobacteria which have existed for a couple of billion years. And Cox demonstrated how simple a basic eye actually is - even a "camera eye" like ours (retina which does basic light detection, some sort of case with a hole in in front, then a lens in the hole. Obviously the devil is in the details, but one thing Cox didn't mention explicitly is that eyes are believed to have independently evolved several times (the figure I remember is at least 40 times, but I don't know if that's right). He then went diving to see an octopus in its natural environment - which is another animal with a camera eye like ours (and it evolved independently). Octopuses are pretty intelligent, and Cox speculates that perhaps intelligence is driven by the need to process the complex images that our sophisticated eyes produce. I'm not sure what I think of that, in the same programme Cox also showed us a mantis shrimp that sees more colours and detects distance more precisely than people - but there was no talk about them being particularly intelligent.
As I said, not quite what I expected from the name of this series, but that makes it more interesting I think :)
We also started watching a series about Brazil with Michael Palin. I tend to be a bit wary of travelogues like this - sometimes the bits where the presenter joins in can cross the line between funny & cringe-making for me. Palin normally stays about on the right side of the line, but only just. But it's still interesting to see the places & people.
The first episode was about the north-east of the country & was titled "Out of Africa". A lot of people in this region have African ancestry - a lot of the slaves brought from Africa to the Americas ended up in Brazil. Palin quoted a statistic of 40%, and said this was more than ended up in the USA, which I was startled by. This has noticeable influences on the art & culture of the region - one notable example is the religion of Candomble which mixes African and Christian elements.
Palin visited a few different places in the region & a variety of different sorts of groups & events. The ones that particularly stick in my mind were the cowboys who were participating a race to catch bulls. And the national park that consists of a region of sand dunes that are blown miles inland to an area with heavy enough rainfall that there are lakes in the middle of the dunes - which looks pretty surreal.
This is the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 2005 to April 2006. I didn't go to see it myself, but I've borrowed the book from my Dad who did. A lot of the book (as befits an exhibition catalogue) is full of pictures of the objects that were displayed. It starts with three general essays, then each section of objects has some introductory text. It also has a map of China, and of the Forbidden Palace. And a chronology which covers both the major events in China of this period and puts them in context with the rest of the world. So far I've read the general essays, so that's what this post is about. The first essay is about the history of the period & is the one I was most interested in. The second is about the imperial art collection, and the third (and least interesting to me) is about the architecture of the palaces of these Emperors.
The Three Emperors of the title of the book are the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor who were the 2nd to 4th Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. This was the last Dynasty to rule Imperial China, and they held power from 1644 through to 1911. These three Emperors are the high point of Qing China. Previous post about this era of Chinese history: 7th part of "China: The World's Oldest Civilisation Revealed".
- 1649: Charles I beheaded.
- 1688: Glorious Revolution (i.e. William & Mary take the throne of Britain).
- 1714: George I took the throne of Britain.
- 1720: South Sea Bubble (post).
- c. 1760: Industrial Revolution begins in Britain.
- 1776: US independence declared.
"The 'Prosperous Age': China in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns" Evelyn S. Rawski
This essay covers the history of the period, and also looks at the way it has been discussed and summarised by historians both inside and outside modern China. Rawski starts by reminding the reader that the Qing dynasty were outsiders who conquered China, and that they regarded themselves as different from their Han Chinese subjects in China Proper (which is the name used for the area that the Ming Dynasty ruled over). They created a writing system for their Manchu language, and this was an official state language alongside Chinese. They regarded their subjects as divided into Han Chinese civilians and Bannermen (and citizens of the non-China Proper regions), and there were different political institutions involved in ruling over the two sorts of people. The people of China Proper were still ruled via the Ming bureaucracy, but the inner councils of the Emperors were derived from the Bannermen and the conquest elite. Intermarriage between the two groups of citizens was forbidden.
The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing Emperor - he took the throne at 7 years old in 1662 after the death of his father the Shunzhi Emperor. Even though the Qing had been ruling China since 1644 the conquest wasn't finished, so Rawski says that the main thrust of the Kangxi Emperor's long reign was finishing the conquest and consolidating Qing power. Consolidation was required because a lot of Ming commanders & officials surrendered once the Ming dynasty was toppled, and so the Qing actually gained territory rather faster than they could assimilate it. The last of the Ming claimants to the throne was executed in 1662, the same year as Kangxi took the throne, but a loyalist rebellion lead by the Zheng family persisted until 1683. The Zheng family were maritime traders who had built a vast trading empire. Although nominally on the side of the Ming they were pretty much acting in their own interests, rather than under the control of a Ming claimant. Luckily for the Zheng, the Qing initially lacked a navy and anyway were more interested in land conquests. Also during this period there was a rebellion by three Han Chinese generals, who had been given control over parts of south & southwest China after joining the Manchu side early in the conquest. Attempts by the Kangxi Emperor to take back control of these regions sparked the rebellion which was eventually put down in 1681.
As well as finishing the conquest and putting down rebellions the Kangxi Emperor used political means to consolidate his power over both his Han Chinese subjects and his Bannermen subjects. For the first the Kangxi Emperor acted as a proper Confucian Emperor should. He kept the bureaucratic structure that the Ming Dynasty had used (including the examinations), and he participated in the Confucian rituals of the court. He was fluent in Chinese (unlike his father) which I thought it was interesting. After the Norman Conquest, for instance, French was the language of the English court for a couple of hundred years and there's no sign that the monarchs learnt English. But the second generation of the Qing Dynasty have made a point of learning the language of their new country and demonstrating their fluency with it. Maybe it's got something to do with the relative prestige of the conquered country? I mean the Qing probably conquered China because they wanted to be specifically Emperors of China rather than it being just somewhere conveniently nearby. Or maybe it was the easiest way to consolidate his rule over China Proper - by being just as "Chinese" as the last Dynasty? Relevant to this exhibition in particular is that part of being a "proper" Chinese Emperor was patronage of the arts.
For the second half of his consolidation the Kangxi Emperor strengthened his control over the banner lords. Previously the leaders of each banner were pretty close to autonomous and were also involved in deliberating state decisions. Helped by some dismal performances during the putting down of rebellions in the early part of the Kangxi Emperor's reign he took control of who the commanders of the troops were. And the administration of the banners was gradually bureaucratised and taken away from the traditional leaders - who were still princes, just with less actual influence.
One thing the Kangxi Emperor didn't do well was organising the succession. The Ming had a rule that the eldest son of the Empress was the heir, but the Qing didn't have this tradition. Their ancestors had permitted brothers to inherit as well as sons, but by the time of the conquest of China it was always a son that inherited. However they still had a tradition that it was the most worthy son that would inherit. The Kangxi Emperor first decided to follow the Ming custom, but then disinherited his eldest son, then re-inherited him, then dis-inherited him again and refused to name an heir until on his deathbed. At that point he is said to have named his fourth son, but there were rumours that this was fabricated. As a result the Yongzheng Emperor (this fourth son) instituted the (slightly odd to my eyes) practice of secretly designating an heir in a sealed casket which was hidden until after his death. This both made sure that the wishes of the deceased Emperor were known (and known to be true, due to the sealing) but no-one knew while he was alive so there would be less court intrigue.
The Yongzheng Emperor ruled for 12 years, and there's only about 2/3 of a page of this 18 page essay devoted to him. The theme of his reign was reforming the fiscal administration of the state and finishing off the subjugation of the banner lords to the throne.
The Yongzheng Emperor was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor in 1736, and he ruled for the next 60 years. Apparently traditional Chinese historians divide his reign into to three - roughly categorisable as good, OK, bad. And then after that it's downhill all the way to the inevitable end of Imperial China. The Qianlong Emperor would see it differently - he was proud of his Ten Great Victories and that the territory he ruled stretched further than that of the Ming Dynasty (and further than the People's Republic of China). He saw himself as ruling over 5 distinct peoples (Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Chinese), only linked because he ruled them. His government had systems in place to balance the powers of the bureaucracy & the powers of the bannermen. China during this time was part of a lucrative intra-Asian trade network, and exports to Europe tilted the net balance of that trade in China's favour.
Chinese society during the period was influenced by outside cultures as well as traditional Chinese ways. There were many Jesuits at court, and they were involved in introducing European science to the Qing and in negotiating treaties on behalf of the Qing with Russia. Russians too lived in Beijing, providing another avenue for cultural & commercial exchange. There was also increased social mobility, and apparently the literati worried about the rise of the nouveaux-riches. Contracts became the general way to organise your affairs (as opposed to institutions like hereditary slavery), and consumption of material culture including books increased. In the bits of the Qing Empire that weren't China proper the Qianlong Emperor & his predecessors tried to promote their separate cultural traditions, but that doesn't seem to've had particular success. Rawski discusses how the Manchu language influenced Chinese, and vice versa.
Traditional Chinese histories point to the last few decades of the Qianlong Emperor's reign as the beginning of "dynastic decline" and cast the rebellions that were put down around this time in that light. But Rawski thinks that this is misplaced - instead of a rotten centre all the rebellions and unrest occurs at the edges of the Empire. So it's the bits where the authority of the state is starting to run thin due to distance, not a breakdown of the state itself. And it was also a reaction to the attempts to extend state authority over those areas.
More recent Chinese histories of the era see it as the high point of China's Imperial history, but also judge it ultimately as a failure. They compare it to the Industrial Revolution that kicks off in Europe around this time and see that as a missed opportunity that China should've seized. But outside China historians see the period differently. Rawski discusses the analysis of André Gunder Frank (a historian I assume ...) who sees China as having been part of a global economy since the 1500s. And a core part of this economy until 1800 - metal flowed into China and goods flowed out. I got a little lost towards the end of this section, but I think the take home message was that Britain industrialising whilst China (and other countries) did not was not because of some difference in their history but was dependent on some specific circumstance in Britain at that time. Because of the global economy of the time China and other parts of Asia were as highly developed as Britain.
"The Qianlong Emperor as Art Patron and the Formation of the Collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing" Gerald Holzwarth
What was once the Forbidden City is now the Palace Museum, and it houses over a million items 80% of which were previous held by the Qing court. Holzwarth divides these into four groups according to their original function. The first group is things that were collected as works of art both ancient and newly created at the time. These were catalogued and kept boxed up - only taken out to be looked at or shown off, they weren't exhibited as a matter of course. These include paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, jades etc. The second group is propaganda and was displayed on the palace walls - these were also works of art by our modern standards but the purpose at the time was the political message. The third group is the ritual and religious objects, for the Confucian state rituals as well as Buddhist & Daoist objects. And the fourth group consists of the clothing & accessories of the court, including things like the Emperor's writing instruments & other everyday objects.
Holzwarth then discusses the first group, and the Qing Dynasty & the Qianlong Emperor's role in developing the collection. The basis of the collection was the Ming Dynasty collection, and that was part of a continuous tradition of collecting going back 1600 years. The forerunners of this collection go back as far as the Shang Dynasty (post) c. 1500BC.
The Kangxi Emperor's main legacy was to set up imperial workshops to create more art works for the collection. He was also a keen calligrapher, and wrote poetic inscriptions on pictures from the Imperial Collection. I'm the sort of person who hates the thought of writing in books, so this tradition of writing inscriptions on paintings fills me with horror. The Kangxi Emperor wasn't much of an art historian, and relied on an expert who was a collector himself ... and so the expert kept the best for his own collection and gave the Emperor the cheap ones or the fakes. His collection did later get amalgamated into the Imperial Collection by the Qianlong Emperor.
The Yongzheng Emperor gets about a paragraph in this essay - he was the best calligrapher of the three.
And then we move on to the Qianlong Emperor, whose influence on the collection is the subject of the bulk of the essay. Holzwarth calls him the last of the great imperial art collectors, and unlike his grandfather he was an expert in his own right. He inspected the new works of art while they were still being drafted, and he inspected the ancient ones and gave them his seal of approval. Literally - he had various collection seals, and marking a collected painting (or other artwork) with one's seal was a traditional thing for collectors to do. This tradition actually grew out of authenticating written documents by putting imperial seals over the seams where pieces of writing were pasted together to form a hand scroll. He also wrote inscriptions on paintings, not just poems but also on some paintings he wrote notes on the experience of enjoying them. And he also wrote art-historical essays on some paintings, discussing who had painted them and correcting any misattributions. He did take care to consider the aesthetics of the painting when adding his inscriptions, but it still feels so alien to my attitude towards art.
As well as general collecting the Qianlong Emperor was consciously trying to create a canon of approved art. And as part of this aim he instituted cataloguing projects. Eventually these catalogues stretched to about 22,500 pages and covered over 5000 paintings and several thousand works of calligraphy. The best quality ones had highly detailed entries - including a list of all inscriptions and seals on the work. Other artifacts were also catalogued, with explanatory notes where appropriate.
The end of this essay harks back to the end of the first essay. Holzwarth notes that while the Kangxi Emperor was interested in European sciences, the Qianlong Emperor concentrated on renewing classical Chinese cultural heritage. So at a point where science & industrialisation was taking off in Europe, in China the man who set the cultural fashions was interested in the preservation & the equalling of the arts of the past.
"Imperial Architecture of the Qing: Palaces and Retreats" Frances Wood
The bulk of this essay describes the layout and building materials of the Forbidden City. The Qing inherited this from the Ming. Although there was some (unknown amount of) destruction during the events at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it was clearly still intact enough for the Shunzhi Emperor, his regents and government to move in immediately in 1644. They didn't really alter the plan of the various buildings, even tho they did alter the use of some of them and tastes in interior decoration changed. Because it was mostly constructed of timber there were frequent serious fires, the essay describes how the library buildings were protected to some extent by pools of water in front of them & ornamental rockerys both of which acted as fire breaks.
Although the Forbidden City was the official main residence and the ceremonial seat of government the three Emperors spent several months of each year either on the move or in their summer palaces. These were generally north of Beijing closer to or in the ancestral Manchu territory, with countryside around them where the Emperors & their court could hunt and hold archery & horse-riding contests.