Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science

I like reading about the history of science, including my own discipline. But there is one kind of history of science that annoys me hugely, and that’s the knowledge relativist kind. A knowledge relativist historian of science will chronicle a scientific debate of the past but make no comment on who – if any – of the participants turned out to be right. (If you feel the need, you’re welcome to substitute “gain the eventual support of today’s scientific consensus” for “be right”.)

Such history writing makes scientific debate look ridiculous and pointless. Just a lot of agitated people dreaming up conflicting interpretations with no way to check what’s right. A relativist history of science gives the erroneous impression that the changes in science’s world view are quite random in their direction and always of about the same magnitude, when in fact debates with a good empirical foundation tend to converge on consensus truth over time, the error bars and the number of open questions shrinking decade by decade. Most of the interpretations suggested in 19th century archaeological debate, for instance, are impossible to put forward today because we have learned so much since then. They have been laid to rest because we know they were wrong.

But I have a feeling that many relativist historians of science may not in fact have such a dismissive attitude to scientific truth as their writings suggest. They may just be lazy and/or pressed for time. Because it takes time to follow and chronicle a forgotten debate of the 1830s. And when you’ve done that, it helps if you don’t also have to read the current literature on the subject to find out how the matter was eventually settled. Apparent relativist historians of science may simply not know or care what came out of those debates a hundred years down the line. But in my opinion, the outcome is the point of scientific debate, and an historian of science who ignores that makes enemies of the debate’s current participants.

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New Paper On The Wreck Of The Rikswasa

A few years ago I did some fieldwork at Djurhamn, a peripheral naval harbour of the 15th through the 17th centuries (and blogged much about it: ABCDEFGH, and published a paper on it in an anthology). Now maritime archaeologist Jonas Wiklund has published a paper on the sad fate of the Rikswasa, a nearby shipwreck that was salvaged by a diving firm and made into coffee-table ornaments in the 1960s with permission from the National Maritime Museum. Jonas has kindly allowed me to make his paper (in Swedish) available here on Aard.

Wiklund, J. 2013. Rikswasa — från örlogsskepp till askfat. Marinarkeologisk tidskrift 2013:1. Stockholm.

Norse Saga About The Buddha

I found something pretty wild in an essay by J.L. Borges this morning. There’s a 13th century Norse saga about the Buddha. And the story has other fine twists as well. This all revolves around a legendary tale of the Buddha’s early life.

In the 6th century BC a son was born to a petty king in what is now Nepal. He was named Siddharta, and it was prophesied shortly after the boy’s birth that he would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father then kept him carefully protected from contact with religion and human suffering, apparently to keep the boy away from the holy-man alternative career path. After 29 years of secluded luxury, Siddharta left his palace for a chariot ride with his driver and immediately confronted an old man (aging!), a sick man (disease!) and a dead man (death!). This freaked him out, but when Siddharta then met an ascetic holy man he took heart from the peaceful look in his eyes and decided to renounce the world.

This story is just a prelude to the part of the Buddha’s life that really interests Buddhists. But let’s fast-forward some centuries. In about the 3rd century AD, Manichaean Persians translate the story into Middle Persian. In the 8th century, Muslims translate that into Arabic. By now the honorific Bodhisattva (“enlightened existence”) of the original text has been misunderstood as the man’s name and rendered first as Budasaf, then Yudasaf, and then Yuzasaf. A Georgian version of the 9th century makes it Iodasaph, a Greek one of the early 11th century makes it Ioasaph, and then in 1048 a Latin version makes it Iosaphat or Josaphat. Along the way, Siddharta’s driver Channa has somehow acquired a more important role and been renamed Barlaam, and the story has been adapted as a Christian tale. This Latin version of “Barlaam and Josaphat” is what King Haakon IV of Norway has translated into Old Norwegian in the 13th century. An 1851 edition is on-line.

Meanwhile, Barlaam and Josaphat have come to be venerated as a pair of Christian saints, celebrated on 27 November in the Western Church. And Borges points out a delicious irony: in 1615 the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto (who lived in India for many years) denounces the heathen Buddhists for believing in a story that is obviously just a garbled version of the legend of Saint Josaphat.

The meaty Wikipedia entry on Barlaam & Josaphat is a good place to start if you want to delve deeper into this story.

The Sacred Blue String of Ethnic Identity

rarestblue-w180pxIn this well-written, painstakingly annotated and beautifully designed book, physicist Baruch Sterman (with contributor Judy Taubes Sterman) traces the history and prehistory of a certain blue pigment, along with its cultural and religious significance through the ages. It’s what the Torah and Talmud calls tekhelet, and it’s made from a gland harvested from Murex sea snails.

Though greatly interested in history, archaeology and biology, I find myself poorly equipped to engage with the book’s subject matter. Or put differently, I don’t think I’m part of its intended audience. Because there’s a major unstated premise here, explaining why a writer would want to view the history of the Eastern Mediterranean from such an odd thematic standpoint. Sterman assumes that his readers will find deeply meaningful certain mollusc-dyed blue treads prescribed in the Torah for the fringe of a Jew’s ritual shawl. Those tassels are where his entire project starts. He clearly feels that the 19th century rediscovery of the ancient sacred dye that had been forgotten for centuries was a symbolically important event that renewed Judaism’s ties with its origins. Indeed, working with dye is “… an integral part of my life’s goal: the modern renewal of ancient techniques and a return to practices forgotten for so many centuries and nearly lost to history” (p. 219). Whereas I – an atheist Gentile, a cultural relativist and a citizen of the world’s probably least nationalistic nation – believe that no culture is particularly meaningful or carries any intrinsic value.

All people have culture and funny traditional garments. That’s nothing to wave about. There is no way for us humans to avoid having culture and funny garments. If we manage to uphold some kind of long-term continuity in this area, then so what? A modern Jew still is not the same as an Iron Age Jew. A born-and-bred Swede, I am not even the same as the people who called themselves Swedes 500 years ago. The people who now wear blue-fringed ritual shawls are essentially reenactors to me. Renaissance Fair.

Don’t get me wrong: though he’s hugely enthusiastic about past leaders of Hasidism, I don’t think Sterman is an ethno-religious chauvinist. He just assumes that his reader will agree that customs such as the wearing of ritual shawls made according to ancient rules are very fine things. He describes his own attitude to those blue fringes in terms of “exuberant fervour” and “overwhelming sense of humility” (p. 210). Sterman is completely OK with the Baal-worshipping Canaanites of yore that get such a rough treatment by the Torah’s writers. But he doesn’t so much as mention today’s Palestinians. And after explaining that the Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Jewish temple’s Holy of Holies, he admiringly describes the Temple Institute, an organisation that prepares for the reinstatement of scriptural Jewish temple service on that very spot! I can only call this passive-aggressive. And in that context it is distinctly odd to find Sterman speaking appreciatively about Irish independence from the English.

Sterman’s use of the Torah as historical source is completely uncritical. To point out just one of the more obvious issues, he doesn’t acknowledge that Kings David and Solomon are now widely considered to be fictional. They’re to Israel what the Yellow Emperor is to China. Last I checked, the 9th century BC King Omri of Israel was the earliest Biblical figure whose bare existence has unequivocal support in period sources. If I understand correctly, historians in Tel Aviv have accepted this for decades while the ones in Jerusalem hold on to the traditional accounts. Sterman is a very well-read man, as the book’s meaty bibliography attests. I can only assume that he knows that not even all Israeli Jews believe in King David any more, but has chosen to uphold a polite fiction that his intended reader will be happy to share.

I would prefer it if people living in Israel rolled up both their fringed shawls and their prayer rugs once and for all and sent them off to be recycled. They are a stark example of how unhealthy it is hold on to tribal superstitions and ancient identities. Jews should be more concerned with tying knots of fellowship with the Palestinians and neighbouring countries than with the fictional kings of a bygone golden age.

But if you’re willing to agree that ancient religious traditions should be cherished, that ancient religious scriptures are trustworthy historical sources, and that disgruntled ethnic minorities should be ignored, then this is a good read.

Sterman, B. & Taubes Sterman, J. 2012. The Rarest Blue. Jerusalem & New York. 306 pp. ISBN 978-965-229-621-4.

Deservedly Forgotten Swedish Drink

Sweden used to have its own version of Irish Coffee: kaffekask. It was big in the 19th century and I believe it dropped from favour during our 1917-55 period of liquor rationing. Nobody seems to drink kaffekask anymore.

A kask is a type of helmet like the ones worn by English bobbies. But that’s apparently not the etymology of kaffekask. More likely it comes from Low German karsch, “harsh”, “abrasive”.

Kaffekask consists only of coffee and 40% (70° proof) potato schnapps plus optionally a sugar cube per cup. Swedish schnapps (brännvin, “burn wine”) is usually flavoured and does not to my knowledge go through the barbarous vodka process where you distill nearly pure alcohol and mix it down again with water. But that is not to say that it is anything like Irish whiskey. Brännvin nowadays is an old folks’ drink taken only at a few ritualised feasts a year to the tune of old drinking songs.

Should you still want to try this blast from the past, there is a traditional way to get the proportions right. You put a silver coin and a copper coin in your cup. Pour coffee into it until you can’t see the silver coin anymore. Then top up with brännvin until you can see the copper coin again. It will be harsh.

History of the Swedish Boardgame Market

Karl Olausson has just submitted his Bachelor’s thesis in history: a study of the post-WW2 Swedish boardgame market. The material he’s used is largely interviews with people in our country’s boardgame business. Karl has kindly given me permission to put the work on-line (in Swedish). Here’s the abstract:

This essay is about the history of the Swedish board game-industry from the 1970’s to today. The essay focuses on the companies in the business and how they change during this period and about the causes of this change. This essay aims both at accurately describing the development of the industry as well as asking the question of what influence factors from outside of the industry have upon the change during this period of time. The material used in this essay is mainly extracts from interviews with people who have been working in the industry during the period, as well as literature on the subject and product-catalogues from certain years in the time-frame.

From this material I have outlined the basic history of the industry. From a nearly monopolized industry in the 1970’s to the global market of today with a wide spectrum of different companies competing for the attention of consumers. I have looked at the different kind of games that enter the shelves in the stores and what trends have come, like the party and trivia games, and what have gone, like the electronic board games and the DVD-board games.

I have also applied a theory of society affecting the board gaming industry and looked at if this is true of other factors than just the theme of games. I found that the theme of games is more affected by outside factors than the mechanics are. I also found that while the industry is competing with the quickly growing industry of digital games, board games still sell almost as much today as they did forty years ago. When it comes to the business part of the industry, the globalization and the new ways to fund and distribute products have affected the consumers more than the companies in the Swedish industry. The big Swedish companies still work mainly for a Swedish market and mostly in the same working methods as earlier.

Thoughts of Violence Past in a Peaceful City

Ferdinand Balfoort contributes a guest entry upon a recent ancestral pilgrimage to Stockholm.

I gladly agreed to write something for the blog after being introduced by Martin to a book by Frans G. Bengtsson about Early Modern Scottish brigades (and brigadiers) in the Nordic region including Sweden. I visited Stockholm in December on my quest to find my 16th century ancestor Gilbert Balfour who lost his head during a public decapitation procedure with a sharp implement, somewhere in the Old Town. So far I am no closer to retrieving his head or his grave site, but some illumination has been provided by the good people of the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet), who sent me a scanned copy of another book by a Swedish author named Fridolf Ödberg: Stämplingarna mot Konung Johan III, “The Plot Against King John III” (1897). My ancestor and his antecedents are duly noted, and on the face of it the story is not a wholesome one.

Gilbert Balfour (and his brothers) are noted for their various involvements as ringleaders or participants in conspiracies against several notable persons in Scotland and Sweden. The Riksarkivet noted rather bluntly that it would be unlikely to find my ancestor’s last resting place in the hallowed ground of Riddarholmskyrkan church, and I appear to have opened a can of worms as far as family geneology is concerned, in all meanings of that popular saying. Which takes me to observations about Stockholm.

One key observation is that the city (and the people here) are very peaceful considering the often violent past. That is no different from the rest of Europe and many places are still wrestling through the violent cycles towards calmer waters. It begs the question as to why such violent pasts have created the current stability and relative peace that is built around consensus rather than the sword, especially in the northern part of Europe. Since this blog lists an eclectic mix of topics, including brain functionality, it might therefore be interesting to tie family history and neuroscience to Vikings. For it appears that a specific gene called the “Warrior gene” (see Science Daily) is responsible for somewhat sociopathic or very psychopathic tendencies, where the MRI scans of such perpetrators as Anders Breivik appear to show a differently coloured pattern in the neocortex. The milk of human kindness appears to dry up in such individuals, but it is also apparent that our evolution necessitated such genetic evolution.

In present-day Palestine, an author of research into the warrior gene – himself the proud possessor of an underendowed neocortex due to the apparent presence of no less that 16 violent murderers in his ancestral matrilineage – has found that through generations of conflict the warrior gene is now establishing dominance in the Palestinian gene pool. His hypothesis is that the more violent males attract mates due to a higher chance of survival for progeny fathered by those with the warrior gene. And so the process selectively advances and causes a cycle of violence which have less to do with politics and more with human evolution. As more violently tending persons are born, this begets more violence and so forth.

As the Riksarkivet person noted, Gilbert Balfour was a rather violent person, who was put to death in a rather violent period of history. And we have fortunately arrived at a much more benign state of affairs, which sees Sweden (and the Nordic countries) ranking highly on the quality of life index, anti corruption, civil society etc. It may in fact all be a case of selective breeding as I have noted. Our ancestors were partners and actors in progress and it is good to know they were there along the way. I am glad myself to now be able to visit Stockholm and enjoy the warm hospitality and the people without fear of being taken off to the Stortorget for a public decapitation. We have come a long way since those unruly days. May it long be so.

Ferdinand Balfoort is a nomadic governance and risk expert dealing mainly with accounting and auditing. In his free time he pursues studies of genealogy, ethics and neuroscience, Sufism and other metaphysics, and plays the trumpet.