In Our Time: Absolute Zero

Absolute zero, or 0°K is the minimum possible temperature, and there has been a race of sorts over the last couple of centuries to reach that temperature in the laboratory. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), Stephen Blundell (University of Oxford) and Nicola Wilkin (University of Birmingham).

The programme started with the Greeks (as a sort of in-joke I think) and mentioned their idea of cold as being radiated in the same way heat is. And then we fast-forwarded through a couple of millennia to the 17th Century when Boyle (amongst others) was speculating about the existence of a supremely cold body which was in effect the essence of cold. And in the 18th Century a French man (Guillaume Amontons) was measuring temperature by means of an air thermometer. He saw this as the effects of heat on the “springiness” of air which increased as the temperature went up. So he postulated that at some low temperature there would be no springiness left in the air and so this must be the lowest possible temperature. In the 19th Century this was taken further, by Kelvin, who used thermodynamics to calculate the lowest possible temperature and set this as the zero point on his temperature scale which is still used by physicists today. 0°K is -273°C, and Bragg unfortunately kept misspeaking through the programme and saying “-273°K” when he meant absolute zero.

By the end of the 19th Century (i.e. before quantum mechanics was thought of) there was a theoretical consensus that temperature could be measured by the energy of atoms of the substance. As the temperature increases the atoms move around more, as it decreases the atoms move around less. Absolute zero is the point where the atoms and their electrons etc. have stopped moving, everything is fixed in place.

And so practical physicists started to try and reach this temperature. The first experiments were done by Faraday, who used pressure to liquify chlorine. The principle behind this is the same was why tea made up a mountain doesn’t really work – as the pressure lowers (because you’re up high) then the water for the tea boils at a lower temperature and so boiling water is no longer hot enough to make tea properly. So in these experiments Faraday increased the pressure that the chlorine was under until the boiling point of it was above room temperature, so the chlorine liquefied. They didn’t spell out the next bit, so I’m guessing here – but I think it’s that once you return the pressure to “normal” then you end up with very cold chlorine liquid (-30°C). He liquefied several gases, but regarded the noble gases as being “impossible” to liquefy, this became the next goal for physicists interested in absolute zero.

At this point in England (which was at the forefront of such research) there were two main players, James Dewar and William Ramsay. Both Scots working in London, and they loathed each other. Which was a shame, as that meant they didn’t work together instead trying put the other one down or prevent him from getting hold of reagents for experiments. Both were interested in liquefying the gases thought to be impossible – as a side-effect of building his research equipment Dewar invented the thermos flask, and Ramsay discovered (and liquefied some of) the noble gases. Ramsay had control of the country’s supply of Helium, which was one of the newly discovered gases (first seen in the sun before being discovered on Earth, hence the name), and prevented Dewar from getting enough to be able to try liquefying it. So instead this was left to a German scientist called Heike Kamerlingh Onnes to achieve. Helium liquefies at about 4°K so we’re down to pretty close to absolute zero here.

Onnes also started to investigate the properties of materials at these low temperatures. In particular he looked at electrical resistance in mercury as you lowered the temperature – one major theory had been that as you reduced the temperature then the electrons would slow down, so resistance would increase. However Onnes found the exact opposite – mercury at the temperature of liquid helium had no measurable resistance at all. He set up an experiment with a loop of mercury at this low temperature and introduced a current to it, after a year the current was still flowing just the same as it had been to start with.

This superconductivity was the first quantum mechanical property to be seen at a macro scale – normally you don’t see quantum mechanical effects at this scale because the jittering around of the atoms disguises and disrupts it. Superfluids are the other property seen at these low temperatures – this is where a liquid has no viscosity.

One other effect of quantum mechanics on the story of absolute zero is that it has changed the understanding of what it actually is – the 19th Century understanding was that everything had stopped moving, there was no energy. However this cannot be the case because the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that you can either know where a particle is or how it’s moving but not both. And if everything has stopped moving then you’d know both, so this can’t be the case. So now there is a concept of “zero point energy” for the energy that remains at absolute zero.

Modern physicists are still trying to reach as close to absolute zero as possible, but it is now thought to be a limit in the mathematical sense – they can tend towards it but not reach it. Part of the reason for this is Zeno’s Paradox – any cooling method cools a body by a fraction, say half. So you can halve the temperature, and halve it again, and halve it again and so on, but if you do that then you never reach your goal. But they’ve got within a billionth of a degree.

This has all been very blue skies – science for the sake of curiosity alone. But along the way there have been inventions and engineering solutions that have had significant practical applications. I mentioned the thermos flask above, but the much more significant invention is the fridge which relies on principles and apparatus designed in this quest for absolute zero and now underpins modern civilisation (think of a world where we couldn’t freeze or refrigerate our food).

And right at the end Bragg flung in a “rabbit out of the hat” question, as he called it. A group of German scientists have managed to get a substance to below absolute zero. Wilkins answered this with one of those physics explanations that makes it all seem like black magic to me – whilst it has a negative temperature in one sense it will be hotter than absolute zero in another sense. And even tho that temperature was reached it won’t’ve been reached by going via absolute zero. She didn’t have a chance to expand before they were out of time, but I rather suspect it would require both high level mathematics & a strong grasp of quantum mechanics to understand!

Archaeology: A Secret History

The main theme of the third episode of Archaeology: A Secret History was that the ideology of the archaeologist affects not only the things they look for but also the things they see when they find stuff. Miles also continued with some of the themes of the last episode – the increasing use of science in archaeology and the continuing move from looking at Kings & Emperors to looking at the lives of the common people.

Miles used V. Gordon Childe & Marija Gimbutas as two examples of archaeologists whose ideology we can easily see showing through their work. Childe excavated Skara Brae, a prehistoric village in Orkney (which we’ve seen in a couple of other TV programmes as well). In this village all the houses are approximately the same size. Childe was a Marxist & interpreted this as being a Neolithic communist paradise. Gimbutas was an American woman who worked on prehistoric Europe, and was particularly interested in the female figurines found across the continent. You can see her feminism and the political context of the USA in the 60s & 70s (like the Vietnam War) shining through her interpretation of that prehistoric culture as a peaceful society run by women with no weapons of war – feminist utopia before the men got in charge & spoilt it all. (Miles was keen to stress that while her ideas might not have much favour now, she was a pioneering woman in what had been a predominantly male field and her work drew attention to the importance of considering women’s lives in the past.)

Other ways ideology influenced archaeology are less noble. The obvious example here is the Nazi regime’s desire to find the origins of the Aryan race (in Scandinavia) and “prove” their “superiority”. But another example is the one Miles opened the programme with: the skull of Piltdown Man, “discovered” by Charles Dawson in Sussex in 1912. This skull was claimed as evidence of a “missing link” between humans and apes, and (not so) coincidentally an older ancestor than the Neanderthals discovered in Germany. This meant Britain had the first known human ancestors, how glorious! But in the 1950s more modern scientific tests finally proved that the skull was a fake – it was constructed from human and ape bones, which were stained, painted and broken and planted in the quarry (perhaps by Dawson, perhaps he was just duped).

The revelation of Piltdown Man as a hoax is an example of a feature of late 20th Century & modern archaeology – revolutions of technique can be used to re-examine previous finds. The meticulous labelling, recording and preserving of artifacts means you can go back to something and apply your new scientific tests. Examinations are never completely finished, there’s always more to find.

There was also another thread running through the programme – PR and spin. These days archaeologists present programmes on TV (like Miles himself) or have other public out-reach things, designed both to interest people and to get funding for further projects & investigations. This can be seen as something that develops through the 20th Century – he used Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as an early example of this. Carter had a dig diary that was the real one, and another one that was written with the idea that it was going to be read. The photos from the dig include staged ones of Carter investigating, and Carnarvon sold the rights to the story of the dig to the Times.

Overall I’ve enjoyed this series, but with such a lot of ground to cover in just three programmes it’s not surprising that it feels like he painted everything with very broad brush strokes. J was disappointed there wasn’t more about Egypt, in particular that there was no mention of Petrie in the whole series. Which was surprising because he developed the technique of using pottery styles to put sites into relative chronological order. Also as a consequence of the high level view all the archaeologists got reduced to a particular quirk or one-note charicature – for instance I know a bit more about Howard Carter and he wasn’t just (or even mostly) a man with a good grasp on PR. And in skimming through the wikipedia articles for the people I’ve mentioned in my write-ups for this series I can see that all of the other archaeologists are more complex that Miles presented them as. So I think the series could’ve done with a bit more space to let the complexities of the subject shine through, but it was a good very high level overview.

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

For all my doubts, this time I think Moffat did pull off a satisfying end to his season arc. Well, the hype about “this will change everything” was somewhat overblown (but see below), but even if we have to wait till November to find out what the very end of the episode is about, I think we still got a proper conclusion…

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

… to the mystery of Clara the Impossible Girl. And possibly a proper wrapping up of the River Song thing too, I could see a cameo or two after that, but not full episode appearances. (Added after talking about the episode with Tony: possibly one more story with River in it still to come – there’s that “spoilers” bit about not disappearing when Clara goes into the time scar, although that could still be related to the Doctor rescuing Clara.)

So “this will change the way you’ll see the Doctor” … and well, kinda? I mean, yeah this means there’s always a Clara off-screen “saving the Doctor”. Mostly from the Great Intelligence’s henchmen I imagine, but obviously not always (cf Asylum of the Daleks). And I guess she helps out the TARDIS in her stealing of her Doctor, too. But really? This doesn’t change much, it just gives them a canon deus ex machina to trot out in the future if they want to. I wonder if they did a bunch of green screen stuff with her for potential future use? After all, she says the Doctor doesn’t often hear her, so it doesn’t need to be interactive.

While I’m nitpicking about meta/hype did anyone else apart from me & J think it was a bit daft to have a whole “he’s me but he’s not the Doctor” thing and then have “John Hurt as The Doctor” come up on screen … The rumours I’ve seen are that Hurt fits between 8 & 9, which would make the stuff he did not in the name of the Doctor something to do with the Time War I guess. Which would make sense as a period of time where he might well do stuff that he wouldn’t want to contemplate or acknowledge later on (and Nine was pretty traumatised by the War and his part in it).

I liked the opening of the Doctor stealing the TARDIS, and Clara with all the other Doctors who couldn’t see her. And the fakeout where it looks like she’s telling One he’s making a mistake in stealing the TARDIS but then at the end we see she’s just making sure he steals the one who wants to steal him.

The conference call was neat – and I particularly like Madam Vastra’s practicality where she gives Clara the chance to light the candle but knows she probably won’t so impregnates the letter with the soporific too. The awkward with River meeting Clara was suitably awkward, and feeds into why I think the River Song story might be completely done with – the Doctor is doing his best to move on, not mentioning River enough to even point out she’s a woman, let alone that this is his dead wife. And on that subject – the Doctor really is rather selfish, isn’t he? He’d rather hurt River than acknowledge her and hurt himself. But in the end he does say goodbye, when circumstances force him to.

I liked that the reason the Doctor can’t go to his grave isn’t coz that’s when he’ll die (which seemed the obvious reason to avoid it to me), but that he will learn things about his future via this scar in time which is what his tomb actually contains. (And I shall just wave my hands about and accept the whole scar in time thing.) Obviously we don’t find out his name or why it’s a secret, and I hope we drop this again (after the 50th anniversary special, maybe?).

And the universe was in danger again – but this time it felt more small scale, if that’s possible. It’s like what the Doctor was saying to the little girl in Rings of Akhaten – she’s unique, there’s no-one else like her, and no-one can be who she is. And the same with the Doctor, he’s unique and despite his fears and his enemies rantings he’s done so much good in the universe that if he had never been then worlds would die.

The relatively personal disaster is also part of what made Clara’s arc feel satisfying, I think. She did what she did to save the Doctor, because he is her friend and she’s the sort of person who takes care of what needs to be done. And I liked the way her memories of the day that had never been (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) came back, and then once she knew she’d died to save the Doctor twice that he remembered she knew what she had to do. And did it even if she didn’t think she’d survive (dying to save the Doctor by dying to save the Doctor).

I was assuming that they got back out of the time scar at the end and so Clara will carry on being a companion, but I guess that’s not certain – we don’t see it happen, anyway. Roll on November to see what happens there … on which subject, interesting we got most of the Doctors appearing in this one. I’d’ve expected cameos in the actual special (and there’s no reason why there won’t still be some but I’d think it’s less likely now).

I’m sure I had more I was going to comment on, but this is probably long enough 🙂

Wonders of Life; Brazil with Michael Palin

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.

“Shadow of Night” Deborah Harkness

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.

In Our Time: Gnosticism

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.

Archaeology: A Secret History

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.

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver

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:

J was a bit annoyed at the continuity announcer on the BBC spoiling the big bad of the episode, but then it was the cliff-hanger-esque end of the bit before the titles. So not that big a spoiler. I was amused by that, because of course because the Doctor reacted appropriately this wasn’t actually going to be a real live Cyberman by the laws of story logic. And this was a Gaiman written episode so it was definitely going to be well crafted. I don’t think I liked it as much as I liked Gaiman’s last one – the one last season with the TARDIS personified – but it was still a good episode.

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.)