In Our Time: Gerald of Wales

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Gerald of Wales. The experts on the show were Henrietta Leyser (University of Oxford), Michelle Brown (University of London) and Huw Pryce (Bangor University) and they talked about Gerald of Wales’s life & books.

Gerald of Wales lived during the end of the 12th Century and was part-Anglo-Norman, part-Welsh and connected (it seems) to most of the important people of court during his lifetime partly because his grandmother had several children by several different partners, some of whom went on to be involved in the Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland, some of whom were part of the Welsh nobility. Gerald was a churchman, and was highly educated – in particular he spent a decade in Paris which was one of the premiΓ¨re centres of learning at the time. In terms of a clerical career the job he really wanted but never got was to be Bishop of St. Davids – and he wanted to turn that bishopric into an archbishopric separate from the Church in England. Which is probably why his applications for the job were prevented by both the Archbishop of Canterbury (who didn’t want the Church in Wales leaving his jurisdiction) and by the King (who didn’t want a separate Church in Wales as that might encourage ideas about political separation).

After his return from Paris Gerald worked for the court in England, as a clerk. And travelled around Ireland (with Prince John) and Wales – and wrote books about these travels which are part narratives about the journey, part description of the lands & peoples, and part scholarly explorations of where the line between human and animal lies. This last was a particular theme of Leyser, and she kept coming back to this during the programme. These books, and his other works (including several autobiographical works) were and, in some cases still are, well read. Whilst full of propaganda (portraying the Irish in particular as barbaric because that justifies the conquest of Ireland) they also contain more mundane descriptions of life at the time. And also fabulous tales (like the Bearded Lady of Limerick, or about beavers biting their own testicles off to prevent hunters from killing them).

The conversation on the programme got quite chaotic, although still always easily followable – it had the feeling of a subject that was too full of good stories to miss anything out. I knew of Gerald of Wales before, because my parents have mugs decorated with a Gerald of Wales themed design – I think they must’ve been bought in 1988 while we were on holiday in Pembrokeshire as that was the 800th anniversary of his travels around Wales. But all I really remembered was that he wrote a book about Wales, so interesting to learn more about the man.

In Our Time: The Ontological Argument

The episode of In Our Time that we listened to this week was perhaps a little brain-twisting for first thing on Sunday morning, but also in some ways appropriate for a Sunday! In it Melvyn Bragg and his guests (John Haldane (University of St Andrews), Peter Millican (University of Oxford) and Clare Carlisle (Kings College London)) discussed the Ontological Argument. This was put forward by St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 11th Century to prove the existence of God by logic alone. In this it is different from argument by design (ie the world works so well that it can surely only exist because someone designed it), or the cosmological argument (where the existence of the universe at all requires the existence of something that caused the universe to exist and this First Cause is God). In essence the Ontological Argument is that if God is by definition the greatest and most perfect concept that there can be, then he must exist because if he did not then there would be the possibility of a greater concept namely one that was all that God is but that also existed. So as God is the greatest, then he must exist. I think that’s the way it runs, anyway – as I say, somewhat brain-twisting.

It was criticised initially by some of his contemporaries, but continued to fuel others’ thought – later it was taken up by philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza & Leibniz and criticised again by thinkers such as Hume & Kant. I was particularly struck by Kant’s criticism, which is that existence is not a predicate – he was answering in particular the formation of the argument that is saying that if God is the most perfect incarnation of all things (ie is perfectly knowing, is perfectly powerful etc), then he must necessarily also be perfectly existing as that is a quality that such a being must have. Kant was saying that existence isn’t a quality like the others – so you can describe an object, perhaps it is tall, blue and hairy. And then you can ask the question “and does it exist?”, this is a separate question to idea of what the object or concept is.

I can see the seductiveness of the Ontological Argument – both to bolster one’s own faith and to say to others “but you must believe, see I have proven it’s true!”. But to be honest it felt circular to me – it involved first defining God in such a way that his existence was part of the definition, and then saying “and therefore he exists”. I’m sure there are more subtleties to the idea than that, however, otherwise it wouldn’t’ve occupied so many people’s thoughts for so long.

In Our Time: Druids

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Druids which was another high-flying overview, albeit a little hampered in this case by the fact that there are few actual facts known about the Druids. The experts on the programme were Barry Cunliffe (from Oxford University), Miranda Aldhouse-Green (from Cardiff University) and Justin Champion (from Royal Holloway, University of London). The programme was a little confusing at times – I think there were possibly too many angles that they were trying to cram into one programme, as well as the paucity of solid information.

Most of what we know about the Druids comes from the Romans who wrote about them – the Druids existed between about 400BC & 400AD, primarily in the British Isle and also in Gaul (modern France). Early Roman writers (like Julius Caesar) seem to’ve been impressed by the Druids. They are described as playing extremely important roles in both the secular & religious life of their communities, they were highly organised & hierarchical and held gatherings where knowledge etc was passed between them and presumably some of it back out to their communities. The Druids themselves haven’t left us much evidence because they adhered to an oral tradition for communicating their knowledge – the experts speculated that this might be partly for memory training, and partly for restricting the knowledge to those who were supposed to know it. The Romans were impressed with the philosophy of the Druids, and some later authors drew comparisons between Pythagorean ideas (I think about the soul) & Druidic ideas (which is pretty high praise for the Druids given how highly esteemed Greek philosophers were).

Many later Roman writers have a change in tone towards the Druids – much less favourable, and more inclined to see them as troublemakers. Perhaps because when you are conquering somewhere having an organised priesthood that has frequent countrywide meetings to exchange knowledge is effectively having a resistance movement. And the Druids had something to lose – the Romanisation of Gaul & Britain reduced their power & replaced them with Roman administrators and Roman religious temples & priests. Later still, Christianity played a part in stamping out the last remains of Druidic culture in Ireland & Wales even tho early on there was some coexistence between the two.

The respect of the Romans for the Druids is still obvious even in the later times when they are stamping them out. When the Romans went to march on the Isle of Anglesey one of the most holy Druidic sites they took on the order of 20,000 soldiers with them, which is rather a lot for an island populated largely by priests. This happened in the same time frame that Boudicca rose up to revolt against the Romans on the opposite side of the country, and the assault was abandoned to march back to deal with her army. Aldhouse-Green made the point that this is unlikely to be coincidence and she thought it was likely that Boudicca’s revolt was timed to prevent the destruction of Anglesey – there is apparently some evidence that Boudicca herself was a Druid.

The programme then jumped to the 17th Century reinvention of Druidism – mostly lead by English clergy, it seems. It’s from these people that we get the linkage between Stonehenge & Druidism – because knowledge of the true extent of the history of humans in the British Isles wasn’t known in the 17th Century they assumed that anything pre-Roman pretty much happened at the same time. So Stonehenge is pre-Roman and Druids are what were there before the Romans, so therefore Druids built Stonehenge. Which isn’t at all the case – Stonehenge pre-dates the Druids by a couple of thousand years! However, Cunliffe did suggest that perhaps the culture that built Stonehenge developed into the culture that had Druids, that there’s some continuity there due to some similarities between archaeological evidence for religious practices in the two time frames.

In this segment of the programme they also touched on how the Bardic tradition in Wales & Ireland may’ve grown out of the Druidic culture – that it’s the closest thing to continuity there is between actual Druids & what people in the 17th Century were trying to rediscover. And that that’s not much continuity at all. But the Romantic reinvention of the past didn’t just give us some colourful stories & myths, it also helped the development of archaeology itself – people bought up sites that were thought to be holy to the Druids to preserve them, and to investigate them.

In Our Time: The Cell

This week we listened to the In Our Time programme on the cell while we had our Sunday morning breakfast. This is a subject about which I know rather more than the average educated layperson*, so I was curious to see if it’d hold up as still being interesting. It did πŸ™‚

In the 45 minutes they managed to cover an impressively large amount of ground. Starting with a brief intro on what a cell is (building block of biological organisms, but just like the atom once you look more closely there’s a lot more going on inside than you thought), then moving on to how big (not very) and how many in a person (a lot, but even all those human cells still only add up to 10% of the cells in your body, the rest are bacterial). They then covered in chronological order the three main stages in life on earth (if you’re thinking from a cellular perspective). First there were prokaryotes – bacteria are this sort of cell. These are the simplest sort of cell – a membrane bag that makes the important chemicals be more concentrated inside than they are in the sea. They have DNA (the metaphor they used was of a library), RNA (copies of blueprints from the library) and proteins (built from the blueprints), and they make the needed energy to do their internal chemistry by transporting protons across the outside membrane. But they don’t have any divisions on the inside of the cell, everything’s in the bag together.

Then about a billion years later the eukaryotes appear (an amoeba is a single-celled eukaryote) … and Melvyn Bragg managed to mispronounce eukaryote more ways than I could count in 45 minutes – the best was when he turned it into something resembling “erotic” πŸ˜‰ Eukaryotic cells have subdivisions inside them – they’re named for having a nucleus which is a compartment that holds the DNA, they also have mitochondria which were originally free living prokaryotic bacteria. These are the true determinant of eukaryotic cells – they evolved by one cell type engulfing another type, and then living in a symbiotic relationship where the internal bacteria provide energy for the outer cell. It’s thought this arose once and only once. So having more energy and having separate compartments (many of them, not just the two I mentioned) lets them maintain a bigger genome (the fragile DNA is kept away from the rest of the machinery, they have enough energy to do more reactions) and do more complex chemistry.

Next stage (after about another billion years) is the arise of multicellular organisms (like people! tho that took a while) – which are lots of eukaryotic cells stuck together. In this last section they managed to touch on the two sorts of cell division, cell specialisation by controlling which genes are switched on or off, and even some relatively recent research that shows that the control switches for the genes might be quite a long way away on the DNA strand so the way the DNA folds up in the nucleus is important (now that’s a hard problem to solve)**. Oh, and also to mention the true distinction between male & female (female gametes provide the mitochondria).

The experts on the programme were Steve Jones from UCL, Nick Lane (also UCL) and Cathie Martin (JIC and UEA). Unfortunately Prof. Martin wasn’t quite up to the normal standard – she was both nervous & used too much jargon. Either one alone would’ve been OK, but the two together made her contributions somewhat confusing to follow. Which is a shame, because she came across as someone who knew her stuff (as did the other two) but wasn’t comfortable with explaining it to non-scientists (in contrast to the other two).

But that quibble aside, it was interesting to listen to, and I thought it provided a very good high-level run through a complicated subject. It’s always nice when things like this hold up even if you already know what they’re talking about, gives you confidence that the ones you don’t know are equally accurate πŸ™‚

*Amusingly one of the further reading suggestions on the Radio 4 website for the programme is for a textbook I had to buy for my first year undergrad – Alberts et. al. “Molecular Biology of the Cell” … it’s the 2nd edition I have on the bookshelf upstairs, seems they’re up to a 5th edition now.

**One of the things I was doing during my last post-doc was looking for the β-catenin promoter, so this was particularly interesting. Mapping the 3D structure of the DNA to make sure all the various bits line up with the right genes has got to be complicated. And I bet it changes based on what cell type, which other genes are switched on or off etc.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 5

This Sunday we listened to the last part of the In Our Time series on the Written Word. This covered the impact writing, and printing, has on science. As was a theme throughout the series they started with someone telling us how the Mesopotamians did it first, followed up by someone telling us how Egypt actually got there are least as early if not earlier πŸ˜‰

The first scientific writings that we know of (from either culture…) are astronomical observations, applied arithmetic (for things like building pyramids, as well as accountancy) and medical observations & treatments. The Greeks then took this further by systematising & analysing data on many different things, biological as well as physical & chemical. The programme made the point that a lot of our words for scientific processes come from the Greek – analyse, theory etc. This Greek knowledge & process was then transmitted via the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe and taken forward by new scientists in the Enlightenment era.

They spent a while looking at Newton’s notebooks, which are kept at Cambridge. These (and other scientists’ notebooks) evolved from the commonplace books that educated people would keep at this time into something closer to a modern lab book. Commonplace books were notebooks where someone would write down facts & quotations & such that caught their interest or that they wanted to remember. Newton’s books started off like this, but soon became places where he wrote down what experiments he’d performed & what he’d observed – like diagrams of a particular prism set up & details of what he saw. Or an experiment where he stuck a wooden bodkin in behind his eyeball and deformed the curvature of the eyeball and recorded what that did to his vision …

So the handwritten word was (and still is) important in the doing of science, in recording what you tried, what happened, what you think that means & what you’ll do next. The printed word is important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge – relatively large numbers of identical books can be produced, and then not only can more people read them but also discussions can refer to specific things & be sure they’re the same in the book their correspondent has.

Overall this was an interesting series, although at times it felt far too Euro- or British-centric. I guess this was partly because he was visiting British places that held early writings, and those collections are bound to be biased towards more local things.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories – both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it … and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with “and also known as the Father of Lies” πŸ˜‰ I did wonder what the Chinese might’ve had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don’t know but I rather suspect that they’ll’ve had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history – history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don’t know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China – he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England – both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one – the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you’d hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them …) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 3

This third part of the series on the Written Word was covering how books and writing helped the spread of global religions during the first millennium AD. And also how the needs of the religions helped spread literacy & printing. It was split into 3 sections – covering Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Common to all three is the way that once the words are written down it’s easier for prospective converts to find out about the religion in question, so it’s easier for it to spread. And also theologians can more easily debate & discuss the finer points of detail if those details are written down and the same for everyone.

Christian writings have been in the form of bound codices from early on. This format was partly used because of the desire to restrict what was canon in the scriptures – so if you had your bound copy of the Bible then you had the books that you were supposed to and no more or less.

In Islam the tradition is that the Prophet Mohammed was illiterate, and thus the teachings in the Koran were initially preserved orally and subsequently written down by scribes. Writing has a dual significance – in the temporal world it was used pre-Islam for contracts and other things where the details needed to be fixed, and this is why the Koran was written down. In the spiritual sense it is also a metaphor for how Allah fixes what is happening in creation.

And Buddhism helped to drive the invention of printing in China. The belief is that there is virtue in repetition – making repeated images of the Buddha will gain you merit, for instance. So writing down the teachings of Buddhism and printing multiple copies of them will not just provide people with their own copy of the text but is inherently a religious undertaking.

Incidentally, I’m always mildly surprised that radio shows like this work – you can’t see anything obviously, but the experts & Bragg describe things and you can normally visualise them and understand the point of what’s going on.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 2

On Sunday morning we listened to the next episode in the In Our time series on the Written Word. This one was all about books, from the earliest known ones through to the development of the printing press. And the secondary theme was how the various changes in writing technology revolutionised time and time again the availabilty of the knowledge that was written down.

Before the 1st century AD most writing was on papyrus & in scrolls, but each time you open a scroll the actual fabric that is written upon gets damaged. So once the idea of how to bind books was developed this took over as the standard format for preserving writing & knowledge. Bound books could also use parchment or vellum as their surface for writing (I think this is because if you have a long continuous roll then it’s easier to make when using papyrus), and this is more durable in damp climates. And books are more easily put in one’s pocket and carried about.

The next change that was mentioned was the putting of spaces between words – invented by Irish monks, apparently, to make it easier to learn to read a language than none of them were native speakers of (latin). And then we moved on to the development of paper, which was originally invented by the Chinese and came to Western Europe via Islamic Arabs. Paper is much cheaper and easier to make than parchment and vellum, and this made books more available to scholars. And once the material was cheaper mass production systems were set up to make more books more quickly – so one way this was done was to break a master copy of a book into sections and then give these to several different scribes, each would then write his part in a few days and the sections would then be bound together. Each copy was then made direct from a master copy so more accurate as well as much more quickly than one scribe copying out a whole work. One of the experts Bragg talked to pointed out that even though it’s hard to tell from actual book prices what the effect was it’s possible to tell by looking at the numbers of books people had. So in Chaucer there is a tale of a scholar who is very proud of having 10 books, but once these mass produced paper books were available even undergraduate students could have twice as many.

Then comes the printing press & the Gutenberg Bible. Printing again was an invention of the Chinese, several centuries earlier, and I’m not quite sure if the idea made its way to Western Europe or if this was an independent invention. But even if he got the idea from somewhere else the revolutionary thing was movable type, to allow you to do many different pages with the same equipment. And this then made books even more easily available (and cheaper again) than they had been. One of the experts refered to it as “the Internet of its day”, meaning that it was as revolutionising to the society then as the Internet is to us in terms of ease of sharing of knowledge & scholarship.

It was a very Western centric episode, even though China and the Middle East were mentioned, it was only in relation to developments in Western Europe. So that seemed a shame, but there are still 3 episodes so they may redress the balance a bit.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 1

Back in January there was a five part series on the Written Word as part of the In Our Time series, which is what we’ve chosen to listen to next. This is a slightly different format in that instead of 3 guests in the studio Bragg is going to museums etc & talking to the curators & experts there.

This programme covered the initial development both of writing itself, and of the alphabetic system we use today. He went and looked at (and described to us) examples of early cuneiform writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese oracle bones, which are three of the four independent inventions of writing. It’s interesting that something so fundamental to modern civilisation was invented so few times – as well as the three I listed there’s also an independent development on the American continent, but all other writing systems were developed from other systems or directly inspired by other systems.

(It’s actually a little controversial to say that Egyptian writing was developed independently like I did in the preceding paragraph – it may’ve been inspired by cuneiform, however the earliest known Egyptian writing is getting to be early enough that it’s more likely to be independent. Also J’s been reading a book about the development of writing, and it also makes the point that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems developed for different reasons – Mesopotamian writing was proto-book keeping, Egyptian writing had religious significance. So probably independent origin.)

I actually found the Chinese stuff the most interesting as it was completely new to me – in ancient China (in the Shang Dynasty) the rulers read oracles in the pattern of cracks that you get by using a hot poker on ox shoulder bones. These oracles were then recorded on the bones by scribes in the earliest known forms of modern Chinese characters, which makes the Chinese system the longest consecutively used modern writing system.

The programme also name checked Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (a syllabic system that was an early way to write Greek), and then moved on to the development of our more familiar alphabet. It made the point that the Greek alphabet was the first to write down vowels – previous alphabetic systems were for Semitic languages and due to the way those languages are structured the consonant sequences are less ambiguous (as I understand it). So to a native speaker it’s a lot more obvious in context what a word is than it would be in English (or presumably Greek).

In Our Time: Scepticism

We’ve developed a tradition of listening to a podcast of a recent In Our Time episode while we eat our breakfast on Sundays. This week we moved it to Saturday morning as we were off to see the Tour of Britain start on Sunday (of which more another time), and the programme we listened to was about Scepticism.

A brief note on the format, in case you haven’t listened to any of the In Our Time programmes – it’s a BBC Radio 4 series where each week Melvyn Bragg invites 3 experts on a particular subject to come on the programme and they discuss that subject live on air for 45 minutes. The subjects cover all sorts of things – philosophy, history, the sciences, art etc. It’s generally presented at a level where you don’t need to know anything about the subject in advance, but it still feels like it gets into the details. Some programmes are very narrowly focused (someone’s life & works, or a particular event in history, or a particular concept), some are more broad – like this one about the philosophical idea of Scepticism.

The experts this week were Peter Millican (Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford), Melissa Lane (Professor of Politics at Princeton University) and Jill Kraye (Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute, University of London). They started the programme by discussing what the philosophical concept of Scepticism actually is – the idea that it isn’t possible to be certain about anything, including whether or not the external world is real. They then moved on to discuss the origins of the philosophy in ancient Greece, and how it is opposed to more dogmatic movements that insist that some things can be assumed to be truth. The second half of the programme followed the rediscovery of this philosophy in medieval Europe & the impact that this had on the Renaissance & Enlightment eras (and on our own world). For instance Descartes philosophy (the man who decided “I think, therefore I am”) came from an examination of Sceptic ideas. And modern science is heavily influenced by Scepticism – instead of dogmatically insisting one “knows” something, to come up with hypotheses that fit what’s been observed & then keep asking questions, being sceptical.