February 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Before the Golden Age 2” ed. Isaac Asimov. Part of Read All the Fiction, short stories from 1933& 1934 plus autobiography of Asimov during those years. Boxed up.

“Book of Shadows” Paula Brackston. Historical fantasy, framing story set in 2007 with flashbacks through the life of a witch born in the 17th Century. Library book.

Total: 2


“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham. Part of Chapter-by-Chapter, an overview of the sweep of Chinese history from the Paleolithic through to the death of the last Emperor in the 20th Century (started reading in January).

Total: 1


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Total: 1



A Gap in the Clouds.


Louvre, Day 2 – a batch of photos from our trip to Paris in 2011.

Total: 4


Bertrand Russell. In Our Time episode about the life & work of Bertrand Russell.

Crystallography. In Our Time episode about x-ray crystallography.

The Cult of Mithras. In Our Time episode about the Roman cult of Mithras.

South Sea Bubble. In Our Time episode about the South Sea Bubble.

Total: 4


“Man in a Cretan Cloak: JDS Pendlebury at Amarna” Rosalind Janssen. Talk given at the EEG meeting in February, about the life & death of the archaeologist J. D. S. Pendlebury.

Total: 1



Ice Age Art: A Culture Show Special. One off show presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon linked to the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum.

In Search of Medieval Britain. Alixe Bovey following a medieval map of Britain (link goes to only episode watched in this year).

Lost Kingdoms of South America. The history & archaeology of four cultures in South America (started in January).

Richard III: The King in the Car Park. Documentary following the excavation & analysis of Richard III’s remains.

Rome: A History of the Eternal City. History of Rome from the perspective of religion, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Rome’s Lost Empire. Using satellite imagery to find previously unknown Roman sites to excavate.

Total: 6

“Before the Golden Age 2” ed. Isaac Asimov

This is the middle volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical look at the science fiction stories from the 1930s that influenced him. No absolute shockers here and I enjoyed reading all of the stories – they still suffer from the various -isms of the time but the sins are more of omission than commission which is a step in the right direction. I think my favourite would be “Sidewise in Time”.


“The Man Who Awoke” Laurence Manning

Man invents a method of hibernation and goes to sleep so he can wake up 3000 years in the future & see the wondrous progress. It turns out not to be as simple as that – there’s been progress, but there’s also been a bewildering (to our protagonist) shift in attitudes to consumption. The biology of hibernation is very 1930s, but the future society which now lives in forests using mostly renewable resources, and carefully manages itself not to use up its resources feels a lot more of modern concept. As Asimov says in his afterword this wasn’t yet a fashionable thing to worry about. It’s still a very 1930s story tho, not only in narrative style but also – women, what are they? On the plus side the inhabitants of the future are brown-skinned yet have both good people and bad people and are treated just like people by the narrative.

“Tumithak in Shawm” Charles R. Tanner

Sequel to “Tumithak of the Corridors” which is in the first volume of this anthology. Tumithak now leads an army from his corridors to do battle with the alien shelk – through various twists & turns of the plot they join forces with another subterranean band of people (under Tumithak’s leadership, of course) and win the first real battles against the shelk! I particularly liked the way that Tumithak & co react believably to being out on the surface for the first time (and being the first generation to see the sun in 2000 years), and the way that they aren’t just obviously victorious from the beginning – we know the end because of the framing story of how Tumithak is a legendary hero, but there’s still tension and still mistakes and bad decisions. In looking to see if Tanner wrote any more I’ve discovered that all his published stories are freely available (on what looks like a legitimate website) so at some point I should read a few of the others.


“Colossus” Donald Wandrei

Man travels & grows to burst through to a bigger universe where our whole universe is one of the atoms. This suffers somewhat from poor science even for the time (although as handwaves go, breaking the speed of light by drawing on “intra-spatial emanations and radiations” is right up there with reversing the polarity of the whatever). I think I might’ve preferred this story if it had explored the vaguely dystopian future-on-the-brink-of-war more, rather than had our hero go off on his journey. And if the girl had lived – she had an actual personality, a shame to have her killed off halfway through to make our hero sad & lonely as he travelled. It was nice that the aliens in the larger world actually seemed fairly alien in some of their attitudes & appealing to (effectively) their humanity didn’t work.

“Born of the Sun” Jack Williamson

What if the planets weren’t balls of rock or gas? What if they were actually eggs? A mix of horror (I want to say “Lovecraftian horror” but I haven’t actually read any Lovecraft) and science fiction – our hero learns the Awful Truth just in time and builds himself a spaceship. Reminded me a bit of a (science fiction) book I read several years ago based on Velikovsky‘s ideas, but only in that it takes “completely nutty science fantasy idea” and runs with it in a science fiction type of way. However, I didn’t like the romance subplot here – particularly not the patronising way the protagonist thinks of his fiancée, and could’ve done without the racist elements too (lots of exoticising stuff about the Oriental mind, and evil Chinese antagonists). And to modern eyes the ending looks less hopeful than I think was intended.

“Sidewise in Time” Murray Leinster

Some cosmic event happens & the world becomes a tapestry of scrambled pieces of different alternate histories for a time, before mostly descrambling itself – many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics suddenly made real. One man (Professor Minott) has figured out from the initial harbingers of the event that triggers it what’s about to happen and we get his story as he tries to lead a party of undergraduates to a land where he can rule the world, interspersed with vignettes of other events across the world. It’s also a take on a wish-fulfillment story for Minott, only his wishes don’t end up fulfilled – he’s just a maths lecturer at a tiny university, and he sees his chance to gain power & get the girl of his dreams, but in the end he’s not the swashbuckling hero he thinks he will be. In the hands of Meek (who wrote the dreadfully racist stories in the previous volume) this would’ve turned into White Man Reigns Supreme, but this story is much more nuanced and good – White Man gets his comeuppance and isn’t as clever or superior as he thinks he is. My favourites of the vignettes were where the nasty, mean-minded & abusive farmer gets eaten by a dinosaur & we’re very much expected to cheer as his wife realises that she might have gone mad (she’s not) but she’s free. And the Roman army (from a land where the Romans lasted into the 20th Century & conquered the Americas) descend upon a car and kill it because they think it’s a weapon, efficiently brutal. Oh, and a sad one where three diplodocuses (or some dinosaur of that general sort) get killed when they’ve wandered into a town – they’re just confused, poor things, they didn’t even mean to destroy anything 🙁

This made me think of Fred Hoyle’s “October the First is Too Late”, except there the scrambled Earth is in different time periods rather than different alternate universes. It’s been probably 20 years or more since I last read that book – it’s one that my parents own – and I can’t remember much about it except for the premise and the fact I liked it. Even the title and author took a bit of creative googling to figure out. Now I just need to remember by the next time I’m in Oxford that I want to re-read it! 🙂

“Old Faithful” Raymond Z. Gallun

Intelligent life on Mars communicating with Earth people. Told mostly from the perspective of the Martian – who is convincingly alien. He thinks differently, perceives differently, has a different sort of society, looks different, tolerates different atmospheric conditions. But despite all these differences the alien is a sympathetic character. And after 9 years of communication the understanding on both sides is still pretty fuzzy, it’s built up from the beginnings of the basics of arithmetic but they still don’t truely understand each other. Which is refreshing after all these stories where the aliens or whatever are human-ish and understanding is perfect after some minor stumbles.

In Our Time: The South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble is one of the more famous early boom-bust financial scandals in Britain, in which a large number of people lost money & the government were thought to’ve been all too involved in the whole thing. The experts who talked about it on In Our Time were Anne Murphy (University of Hertfordshire), Helen Paul (University of Southampton) and Roey Sweet (University of Leicester).

They started the programme by setting the scene a little. The South Sea Company was set up in 1711, which is very early in the history of the financial stock market in London – which was only really set up in 1690s. Queen Anne was on the throne, and Britain was involved in the Spanish Succession War (attempting to prevent the French Bourbons from gaining the Spanish throne). War is expensive, and the government debt was rising – so the South Sea Company was set up to take on some of the government debt, and hopefully also make a profit (the model here would be the East India Company, which as we all know was spectacularly successful and gained a whole colony for Britain).

All three experts seemed sure that there was a chance for the Company to make a reasonable profit, it wasn’t an actual scam. It had a monopoly on British trade to South America – which was important politically because the Spanish controlled South America & so this played into the war efforts. They did in fact trade with South America. The Spanish never got a proper foothold in Africa, so they relied on other countries to provide them with African slaves to work in their colonies in South America, and the South Sea Company got one of these contracts (the war over the Spanish succession had Spanish on both sides, so that’s not as much of a surprise as one might think).

So the Company continued to finance the government debt, and make some profits, in a normal sort of fashion until 1720. And then a combination of factors all came together to make the prices of shares first rise stratospherically (from about £100 per share up to £1000 in a few months) and then crash back down. One of these factors was that companies were beginning to figure out how to advertise their shares to make them seem more attractive as investments thus drawing in ever more investors. And they were making it easier to buy those shares – you could pay in instalments, or get a loan from the Company itself which you paid back over a longer time (or with the profits you’d “inevitably” make rolls eyes). Another factor was the rumour spreading that the South Sea Company had “something big” in mind. And this big thing was that they were going to take on even more of the government debt. I admit to a blind spot about economics & how capitalism works – it always seems a confidence game to me, where it all just works because the economists believe it will – so I have to take it on faith that this would prompt investment. Or equally perhaps I’ve misunderstood this point 🙂

As the share price began to rise, people started to make lots of money (on paper) and this fuelled the desire of other investors for shares in the Company (I do understand how that bit of economics works 🙂 ). Other companies began to spring up – some with sensible sounding ideas, some less so – and to take advantage of this desire to invest, a bit like the dot com bubble with all the little start ups. And here’s where the South Sea Company started to shoot itself in the foot – they actually got Parliament to pass a law restricting the setting up of these new joint-stock companies and that started to change the mood of the investors (I think that’s how it was a bad idea).

And then it went pop! The mood changed, and the price dropped, and a lot of people lost money – some of it money they’d not actually had in the first place. One of the reasons that it’s so famous is because for the first time it affected a large cross-section of society – including a lot of writers who wrote about it. And not just wealthy people – because of the loans-to-buy-shares thing there were quite a lot of less well off people who’d thought they were going to make their fortune, and now had lost even what they’d started with. However, the experts were unanimous in saying that actually it wasn’t as bad as one might think from the reports and the writing about it – it didn’t drive the whole country’s economy into recession (or not for long), and even the South Sea Company itself continued along for another hundred or so years making modest profits. And even some of the vocally upset people only lost money “on paper” – if you’d bought in before 1720 then your shares were worth around the same or a little more in 1721. Of course some people made a lot of money by selling out at the right time, but they tended to keep rather quieter about it. This (as they said a couple of times on the programme) was definitely a period of history that was written by the losers.

Suspiciously one of the people who made money on the deal was Walpole – a leading (Whig) politician (who wikipedia tells me was the first Prime Minister of Britain – it didn’t really exist as a role till around the 1720s). There was definitely government corruption involved in the setting up & running of the Company (the debt financing side of it) – the experts talked about bribery with the Company doing things like promising politicians shares which they then had an incentive for passing laws etc to raise the value of. The collapse of the bubble damaged the reputation of Walpole, the Whigs & even the King (George I was on the throne by this point). Although Walpole was still one of the premier politicians for another decade or two, at the time of the end of his political career satirical cartoons about his involvement in the South Sea Bubble were still being circulated.

I can’t remember which of the three experts it was, but one of them brought up the effect the bubble and its collapse had on wider perceptions of women & finance. Because of the opening up of share buying and the advertising and encouragement for new investors to join in there was a much more significant number of women as shareholders of the South Sea Company – as many as 20% of the investors were female. Some of these women did well – they mentioned a particular Duchess whose name I’ve forgotten who sold out at the right moment, then made even more money lending it to people who’d lost money. But at the time that this hysteria & mania for shares that lead to the boom & bust wasn’t really understandable – economists today know this is how markets work when you have these conditions, but at the time it was seen as irrational. And there was a perception at the time that it was in part due to letting silly, irrational women make financial decisions – that they’d followed some notion of “fashion” and that had lead to the bubble and to its bursting.

I think I’ve missed out loads they talked about on the programme – like there was a bit about the French financial market which collapsed a bit before the South Sea Bubble. All three experts & Bragg were definitely very enthusiastic & kept wandering off on to tangents and having to re-track to get back to the actual topic on hand.

“Book of Shadows” Paula Brackston

Another book I got out of the library after reading an excerpt on tor.com. Well, I read an excerpt of the sequel and remembered I’d been intrigued by the first one when I’d read that excerpt, and finally found out it had a different title in the UK.

The story is the story of Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, born in the early 17th Century and still living in 2007 – told partly through her journal, and partly via three long flashbacks to significant events in her long life. She’s a witch – a real one, with real ability to do magic – who has lived her long life in fear of being found by the man (Gideon) who trained her. The magic system is the sort of traditional witchcraft from both 17th century & modern ideas of witchcraft – herbwives, healing, pacts with devilish beings, black witches & white ones, fires on Beltane, the Summerlands etc. That sounds dismissive, but actually I think it’s one of the strengths of the book – it’s not explained in detail, it just is and its recognisability makes it feel more real than some meticulously detailed explanation would.

In 2007 Elizabeth has just moved to a new home, and starts befriending a local teenager almost despite herself. She tells this teenager (Tegan) some of the story of her life – including how she came to be a witch in plague-stricken, witch-fearing 1627. The next interlude is Gideon catching up with her in 1888, and then we have the last time she loved someone (in the midst of the First World War). She’s hoping, initially, that she’s finally free of Gideon – but you can sense the inevitable results of letting her guard down right from the start of the book. However that doesn’t make it predictable – I didn’t guess what the ending was going to be until it happened, but once it did it felt right and a better end than the predictable thing I thought was coming.

It was a book I enjoyed reading, and I always wanted to know what happened next. But that’s not to say it’s without its flaws. In retrospect it feels like a lot happened off-screen that was actually rather important to the story – and then suddenly it’s revealed in the last few pages, and in some ways undermines the characterisation of Elizabeth that we’ve had up to that point. Also – Tegan was mostly a cipher, which didn’t help overcome the constant reminders of Doctor Who from her name (although the character was more Ace than Tegan in so far as she was developed). And Gideon felt a bit cartoonishly bad.

As far as I can tell this is Brackston’s first book (her webpage only mentions this (calling it “The Witch’s Daughter”, which is the title in the US) and the next one, “The Winter Witch”) – I’m not blown away by it, but I shall keep an eye out for more from her in future.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The last episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America looked at the Chimú people and their Kingdom of Chimor. They lived in the coastal areas of Peru from around 800AD through to 1400AD when they were conquered by the Incas. The coast of Peru is a desert broken up by river valleys created by the melt water from the Andes running down to the Pacific Ocean.

Cooper started the programme in the ruins of Chan Chan – the capital city of Chimor, which was fairly large & would’ve been inhabited by ~35,000 people at its peak. I’m not sure if this was just the people who lived inside the city (the elite in palaces, and the artisans in houses squeezed in between) or if it also included the poorer people who lived around the walled city & grew food etc. The city is now a tourist attraction & actually a lot of what you can see is reconstruction based on photos & drawings from the past.

The Chimú had arisen after the collapse of a preceding civilisation, the Moche. They grew from a small settlement to a medium sized kingdom on the basis of their irrigation works. Cooper spoke to an archaeologist who works on this, and he was saying that the biggest problem the Chimú faced was that “if all you do is add water to the desert, then you get nothing but wet desert”. Which made me giggle a bit, I liked the turn of phrase. Basically they had to bring in top soil from the river valleys as well as build canals. And unlike our canals which are built straight they built their canals with twists & turns to slow down the water & prevent it eroding the land so much.

The management skills that the culture had to develop to build up their irrigation systems translated well to the management of an empire, and the Chimú set out to conquer themselves one. One neat thing while watching this programme was that J & I had been talking just beforehand about something we’d seen a while ago about some other South American culture (the Lambayque people) and then it turned out they were one of the people’s the Chimú conquered. Cooper told us one reason the Chimú kept conquering was that each new monarch inherited the title from his or her predecessor, but the wealth was inherited by other members of the family. They had to make their own reputation to receive tribute, and the best way to do this was to conquer somewhere new & prove you were worth giving food & wealth to.

Before we watched this episode J & I had been laughing about how all the previous episodes had been dwelling on the happy, happy, hippy side of the cultures, and how all the cultures chosen had apparently got no or little hierarchy. But then this one was the complete opposite – the Chimú had a very strict hierarchy, and you couldn’t change the class you were born into. They even had it built into their creation legend – the commoners came from a copper egg, the women of the royal families came from silver egg, and the men of the royal families from a golden egg. The King was so important he walked on crushed Spondylus shells (which were even more valuable to the Chimú than gold).

And it seems that they practised human sacrifice, of children. The remains of some children between 10 & 14 years old, and in good health, have been found – each was bound and then had their chests cut open & the ribcage forced open. So here we’re back to the gruesome sorts of things one thinks of about Mesoamerican & South American cultures – like the Aztecs & the Incas. The sacrifices were probably due to the extreme weather events that the Chimú land suffered – during an el Niño year the desert can experience extraordinarily heavy rainfall. Around the time the child sacrifices were made there is a band of clay (wet desert!) in the strata, indicating a particularly bad spell of this sort of rainfall.

Overall this was a good series & Jago Cooper is a good presenter. I enjoyed seeing the remains of the different cultures & the scenery of the places they lived – and I thought they did well with emphasising both the differences between the sorts of lives these various people’s lived & our own, and with making them feel like real people. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the happy, happy hippy thing in some of the episodes (particularly the one about the Tiwanaku).

We finished off two series this week, because the third episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City was also the last. This covered the 600 years or so of Rome’s history – at a gallop! It started where it left off last time – with the Papacy leaving Rome to take up residence in Avignon. Montefiore told us how St. Catherine of Siena was so horrified about the Papacy not being in Rome that she wrote several letters practically commanding the Pope to return, and then eventually travelled to Avignon herself and brought the Pope back.

During the Renaissance the Popes and the elite families of Rome indulged themselves in decadent & lavish palaces full of works of art. This is the time of the Borgia Popes, and the time of Michaelangelo etc. And even the Papal residences began mingling classical pagan themes with Christian themes in their decoration. To add to all this expensive building & decoration Pope Julius II (chosing his papal name partly in honour of Julius Caesar) decided it was time St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in a suitable style. To pay for these works the Church sold indulgences – forgiveness for your sins (even the ones you hadn’t committed yet). And this is what so incensed Martin Luther that he kicked off the Reformation.

Because the subject of this series is Rome Montefiore then told us about the counter Reformation – the Catholic Church’s own answer to the excesses of the Renaissance. Although that didn’t mean giving up the lavish art habit – Pope Fig Leaf as Montefiore said he’s remembered (real name Pope Clement XIII) just had them paint over the genitalia in the Renaissance art so the paintings were more modest. And Montefiore went to a church which had a large Baroque statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa which might have everyone clothed, but it’s still spectacular & lavish & sensuous.

Montefiore moved us pretty briskly through the rest of Rome’s history picking out just a detail here & there. The sack of Rome by unpaid mercenaries at the end of the Reformation period was used to highlight the ludicrousness of a more modern Pope’s flouncing about being “practically a prisoner” when he wasn’t nearly so threatened (personally or physically). But the threat was still there as this was the end of the Church’s domination of Rome – the fascist Mussolini dealt the death blow when he confined the Pope’s authority to the area of the Vatican State, and the rest of Rome was then under secular Italian rule. And that’s pretty much where we left the story.

I did enjoy this series, but it felt very rushed to fit the whole three millennia into 3 episodes. Even though the theme was the religious history of Rome it felt a bit too much like a history of the papacy for the last couple of episodes.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 5)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (First Half)

From one extreme to the other – this chapter of my book is so long I’ve actually split it into two and this post is about the first half. This covers the Sui and Tang dynasties of China (and the immediate aftermath of the Tang), and about 400 years from 581AD to 960AD.

Orientation Dates: The first Archbishop of Canterbury took office in 597AD. Offa was king of Mercia (one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain) form 757AD to 796AD. The first recorded Viking attack on England was in 793AD. Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor) lived from 742AD to 814AD. Alfred the Great ruled Wessex (another Anglo-Saxon kingdom) from 871AD to 899AD. Aethelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great) was the first king of the whole of England, and he died in 939AD.

So around the time that the various Anglo Saxon kingdoms were dealing with the Vikings (and with each other), and that the Holy Roman Empire was being established in Europe, the Chinese were enjoying a period of (mostly) unity and a cultural golden age.

The Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty consists of only two emperors – the first unified China again after the fragmentation of the previous centuries, and the second (his son) allowed it to disintegrate again until he was usurped by the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

Sui Wendi took the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty in 581AD, and immediately began to fulfil his ambition of re-unifying China. In 589AD he succeeded with this by deposing the last ruler of the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the south. His second son Yang Guang was involved in this victory and became the top administrator of the southern part of the re-unified country. He wasn’t the heir apparent, but in 604AD he became the Emperor Sui Yangdi after his father died in suspicious circumstances. He ruled until 618AD when a palace coup amid widespread uprisings lead to his death & the end of the Sui Dynasty.

Wendi founded his capital city of Chang’an to the southwest of the previous capital city in the region – for feng shui reasons. These principles also underlay the layout of the city, where the temples and other ritual buildings were, where the palaces were, where the residential districts were etc. Chang’an was the capital city throughout most of the next 400 years. Not to be outdone Yangdi founded his own capital city further to the east of China called Luoyang – this was a secondary capital during most of the period.

During the Sui Dynasty a lot of authority was centralised, to reduce the risk of rebellion by outlying provinces. Yangdi continued his father’s domestic policy in this respect, but was a lot less frugal and engaged in lavish programmes of public works. These relied on corvée labour (which was a part of the tax system that Wendi had set up), and the abuse of this is part of what lead to the collapse of the Sui dynasty. As well as his new capital one of the big building projects that Yangdi embarked on was the Grand Canal of China. This was a network of four canals that stretched 1,465 miles, linking the north & south of the country (towards the eastern coast).

Wendi’s foreign policy and military campaigns were fairly single minded – focussed on unifying China, he mostly made sure that the Turkic Qaghanates to the north & north-east of China couldn’t interfere with his plan. One exception to this was Wendi’s attempted conquest of Koguryô (which is in modern day Korea). Wendi failed & Yangdi launched three campaigns to try & achieve this goal but also failed. The first of these (in 612) involved an army of 1.13 million men – the population of China at the time was 46 million. The scale of these armies added to the forced labour for the building works took a toll on the economy of the country (and on the society) and is another part of what lead to Yangdi’s downfall. The Tang eventually succeeded in conquering Koguryô.

The Tang Dynasty

The first emperor of the Tang dynasty had been a garrison commander under Sui Yangdi, controlling a region of northern China within striking distance of both Chang’an and Luoyang. When Yangdi’s rule started to falter Li Yuan and his two sons captured Chang’an. At first Li Yuan was content to be the power behind the throne – deposing Yangdi and putting his young grandson on the throne as a puppet ruler. But shortly afterwards he took power himself and ruled as Emperor Gaozu, the first of the Tang Dynasty. He had to fight several campaigns to re-unify a disintegrating China, which he succeeded in doing in 624AD.

The biggest difference between the Sui Dynasty policies & Emperor Gaozu’s policies were the way he handled the army. As he’d come to the throne by exploiting the power his army post gave him he took steps to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. He split up the existing 12 armies into over 600 smaller units of 800-1200 soldiers, who were under central command and whose postings were frequently rotated. This prevented personal loyalties to generals or areas building up.

Tang Dynasty Jug
Tang Dynasty Pot

Other than that Gaozu generally continued the policies of the Sui – including basing his new legal and administrative codes on the Sui code, and continuing their Equal Fields system of land distribution. This was a form of centralised control over land ownership (and so limited the size of estates that could be built up). The basic idea was that an annual census was taken, and then land allocated equally to each male taxpayer – a complicated system for a pre-modern society, but despite the doubts of many historians documents have been found showing that it did happen.

Gaozu’s reign ended after he attempted to restrict the power of the Buddhist & Daoist clerics – after ordering a severe reduction in the number of monasteries permitted in the capital he was briskly deposed by his second son, Li Shimin, probably with the support of the Buddhist clergy. Li Shimin is better known as Tang Taizong, and his 23 year reign was known as “Excellent Governance of True Vision” and was a golden age for the Tang Dynasty. Because he’d come to power by violence he was keen to show that he valued Confucian ethics, and founded schools and colleges as well as strengthening the examination system for appointing members of the bureaucracy. But he also had a martial side and conquered various of the Turkish peoples – as well as styling himself in the traditional Confucian fashion as Son of Heaven he also was called the Heavenly Khan. During his reign China was extended out along the Silk Road to the west, the map shows Chinese territory sticking out like a finger to modern-day Kyrgyzstan. But he too failed to conquer Koguryô.

After Taizong’s death in 649AD one of his younger sons (Gaozong) succeeded him, but he was often unwell during his reign. He’d taken one of Taizong’s minor concubines into his own harem and after she’d borne him some sons he elevated her to the status of Empress Wu. She played an active role in government due to his illness, and after the heir apparent died in 676 Gaozong even offered to abdicate to Wu. She refused the offer, but it seems she regretted that fairly quickly after his death in 683. Their son who inherited (Emperor Zhongzong) turned out to be “inept and frivolous” so she deposed him in 684, putting his brother (Emperor Ruizong) on the throne with herself acting as regent. Eventually in 690 she declared herself Emperor – the first and only female Chinese Emperor. From what the book says she doesn’t seem a particularly nice woman, but then if she had been nice she wouldn’t’ve got to be Emperor. She does seem to’ve been an effective ruler, both domestically and in foreign relations & military affairs. She was keen to promote Buddhism over Confucianism, which is probably due to the fact that Confucianism regards women as having a place and that place is definitely not in charge. She was eventually forced to retire by a palace coup in 705 at the age of 80, and died soon after.

After Wu retired her deposed sons took the throne again (sequentially, not simultaneously), so her dynasty didn’t outlast herself and the Tang resumed. Her grandson Tang Xuanzong’s reign was for its first 3 decades one of the two high points of the Tang dynasty – referred to as the “Splendid Age of Original Opening”. And after that he presided over the beginning of the end for the Tang. He forgot the lessons of the start of the Tang dynasty & allowed permanent military commanders to be garrisoned at critical places on the frontier. And these commanders weren’t necessarily Chinese themselves, often they were descended from the Turkic & other tribes that they were now in charge of subduing. The Emperor also became somewhat detached from the realities of his empire – distracted in particular by one of his concubines, Yang Guifei. These circumstances combined to let one of the generals, An Lushan, gain enough power to successfully rebel in 755AD. This is the period that Guy Gavriel Kay’s book “Under Heaven” was based on (I read it a while ago for calico_reaction‘s book club). Oddly for a book that I was a bit ambivalent about at the time it keeps coming back to mind – maybe I should get it back out of the library again some time.

The Tang dynasty did recover (mostly) from the rebellion, but they were not as powerful as they had been before. They lost control over various parts of their territory – such as the Silk Road oases which were conquered by the Tibetans (who actually got as far as Chang’an and sacked it in 763AD). The Equal-Fields system collapsed, and regional landlords became more powerful. Military commanders in the outlying regions also became more autonomous. A lot of the rural poor were dispossessed of their land and livelihood, so banditry became more common. Bandits even sacked the secondary capital of Luoyang in 880AD. The dynasty finally collapsed completely in 907AD.

One of the significant cultural developments during the Tang period was the invention of printing. The first known printed text from China is dated to 868AD – a copy of a Buddhist scripture called the Diamond Sutra. This was discovered in 1907 and remains the oldest known printed book. Judging by the quality of the printing this wasn’t a new technology, so the Chinese must’ve developed printing sometime before this.

The Five Dynasties

The immediate aftermath of the Tang dynasty was a fifty year period of disunity & relative chaos. China disintegrated again into multiple independent regions – this period is thus called the Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms. In the north of the country this was the final outcome of the increasing militarisation of the area from before the An Lushan rebellion, and five different dynasties ruled various bits at various times. And in the south civilian rule continued, but the land was fragmented into ten separate kingdoms. The country was then re-united by the Song dynasty & 960AD – and that’s where the second half of this chapter of the book will start.

Tangents to follow up on: The Empress Wu. Tibetan history – clearly a key player in the silk road region in the late 9th Century. The history of the Silk Road itself. Mongolia/the Turks. And Korean history.

In Our Time: Crystallography

Crystallography is a technique that uses the diffraction patterns created by passing x-rays through a crystallised substance to determine the structure of the substance. It was first described in 1912 & has become very important to many scientific disciplines since then. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Judith Howard (University of Durham), Chris Hammond (University of Leeds) and Mike Glazer (University of Oxford and University of Warwick).

The programme opened with a brief description of crystallography & its wide-ranging uses in the sciences and then moved on to discuss the history of the technique. X-rays were discovered by chance at the end of the 19th Century, and were given the name “x-ray” because they were unknown rays. One of the questions physicists were trying to answer about these new rays was “are they particles or waves?”. As I understand it the modern physicist’s answer to this would be “yes.” but at the turn of the 20th Century they were still trying to categorise things as one or the other. A German physicist called Laue figured out an experiment to look at this – light waves split and are diffracted if passed through a diffraction grating, but the holes in these are far too wide to do the same at the sorts of wavelengths that x-rays have. So when he learnt about crystals – that they are regular arrangements of atoms or molecules – he realised these might act as diffraction gratings for x-rays. As he was a theoretician he got his students to do the actual experiment (I thought Hammond was quite sarcastic about this as he was telling us about it) – which neatly showed both that x-rays act like light waves when you use a fine enough diffraction grating and that crystals have this regular structure.

The next step on the way to using crystallography to determine the structures of molecules was done by a father & son team called William Henry Bragg & William Lawrence Bragg. Glazer told us a bit about the family – that they came from Wigton, Cumbria (just like Melvyn Bragg, in fact) and William senior moved out to Australia where he met his wife & had children (including William Lawrence). The family moved back to England, where William senior became a professor of physics at Leeds University & Lawrence became a student at Cambridge University. And they both worked on x-rays & x-ray diffraction through crystals. It was Lawrence who figured out the formula (Bragg’s Law) that describes the way that x-rays pass through the crystal structure & how the interactions between the different wavelengths and the differing spaces between the parallel planes of atoms produce a particular configuration of spots on the photographic plate. This formula is now used to work out the structure of a molecule from knowing the wavelengths of X-rays that are put in, and analysing the diffraction patterns that come out.

William senior in parallel was developing the X-ray spectrometer which provides a quantitative measure of the diffraction patterns. The original set up for these experiments was to shine a beam of X-rays through a crystal onto a photographic plate, and then look at the intensities of the spots to work out what structure would’ve generated that pattern. And for simple structures this works out OK, but as it gets more complicated you have a much more complex pattern where differing dots of differing densities might be hard to tell apart. So William developed a technique & machine that shone different wavelengths of x-rays through the crystal at a variety of angles sequentially rather than simultaneously, and then passed the diffracted beam into an ionising chamber to measure the intensity. This was initially a slow & laborious process, but essentially the same principle is used in today’s crystallography experiments – just the advent of computers & more refined technology has made the whole process much easier.

The first structures solved were simple ones – the very first was that of salt, NaCl. People then moved on to slightly more complex molecules (such as the benzene ring). And from there to much more complicated things, like proteins which consist of hundreds of thousands of atoms. The first of these to be published was the structure of haemoglobin, which was solved by Max Perutz – I think I once went to a lecture given by Perutz (but about 20 years ago so I can’t really remember it). The most famous is the structure of DNA, the discovery of which was published by Watson & Crick but relied heavily on data from Rosalind Franklin (which she wasn’t aware had been given to the other two, and she wasn’t credited for her work at the time).

During the programme the conversation went off on some interesting tangents. The first of these was that there is a relatively large number of women working in crystallography at all levels, and has been since the early days of the science. Howard said that this was down to both the newness of the field (relatively speaking) and the attitudes of the initial founders. Both Braggs welcomed anyone who could do the work into their groups, and didn’t discriminate based on gender, and there weren’t previous entrenched attitudes about the “place of women” in the field to overcome.

They also briefly discussed the way that modern science funding would’ve stifled some of the pioneering work in the field. I shan’t get up on my soapbox here, but it’s something I’m in agreement with. The examples from this discussion include the discovery of both x-rays themselves, and the technique of crystallography, which revolutionised several scientific fields and wouldn’t’ve happened if the scientists had had to figure out in advance why it was worth spending the money on that research. And some of the initial work solving structures was incredibly long term by modern standards – it took Perutz 25 years to be able to publish the structure of haemoglobin, no direct pay off in a 3 year project that’s easy to point to when you’re writing a grant application. You need some blue skies research and long term projects, as well as the more directed and more obviously relevant stuff – that’s how you expand the boundaries of knowledge & find out truly new things.

And they discussed how crystallography is a multi-disciplinary field – and that’s one of it’s strengths. People come from different scientific backgrounds, and collaborate across the boundaries of these fields.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

As has become our tradition for Valentine’s Day J and I had a takeaway curry for dinner and watched a film I’ve not seen before but probably should’ve. This year it was the third of the Indiana Jones films. What can I say, I just don’t do films much 🙂

It’s been a bit weird watching the first three of these films over the last few years, partly because I saw the fourth film first (and twice) before I saw any of the others, partly because I know some of the references through osmosis of pop culture and only now have I seen where they come from. The thing that struck me that way from this particular film was the “you have chosen wisely” bit near the end. And the Grail diary reminded me of Drake’s journal in the Uncharted games. Obviously for everyone else that’s the other way round 😉

At first I felt the film was going to be just too cartoony for my tastes – the opening bit with Indy as a boy in particular. Tho I did like the fake-out where they try & set you up to think the leader of the team that find the cross in the first bit is Indy rather than the boy. And the origin story for the fear of snakes was entertaining too, even if it was the first of many bits during the film where I averted my eyes coz of all the wriggling or scuttling creatures.

In fact I think I enjoyed all the set pieces throughout the film, just ended up feeling like the whole wasn’t quite as good as the sum of its parts. The plot was very by-the-numbers just moving us from set piece to set piece and ultimately very predictable. Like the man who says “trust no-one” … is a bad guy. Like the fabled Grail … isn’t made of gold & jewels. So I ended up talking back to the screen more than once. Hopefully not too much to J’s irritation 😉 It’s hard to tell, tho, how much of that predictability is because I saw it 24 years after it came out – did it drive the cliché-isation of the plot? Or was it that clichéd in 1989?