22 January 2019

THE WORLD OF SCIENCE

Peter Shaver. The Rise of Science: From Prehistory to the Far Future. Springer International. 2018.

This book delivers a magnificent, outstanding and informative understanding of the evolution of science. The author shares his lifetime in science explaining the history of scientific discoveries from the earliest civilisations to the prospects for the far future, in a concise and comprehensible manner, “The world a few lifetimes ago would have looked much like as it did hundreds or even thousands of years before. It is only since then that our lives have changed so dramatically, thanks to science and technology.”

Shaver starts his narrative with a brief history of mankind. Our ancestors emerged out of the mist of time, developing conscious awareness about seven million years ago, evolving separately from chimpanzees and becoming a separate species, moving to the open Savannah of Africa and the cold plains of Asia, Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. A crucial evolutionary adaptions was bipedalism, bringing major advantages and allowing them to move faster and more efficiently, and free their hands for other tasks. Footprints have been found of our early ancestors in solidified volcanic ash dated at over 3.5 million years ago. Over the last two million years the technology of tools evolved, then about 50-100 thousand years ago, innovations of several kinds began to appear, tools made of bones, composite weapons such as spears, bow and arrow, fishing, cave paintings, jewellery, transport and burial sites, and most significantly activities of a symbolic and abstract nature.

He shows that all known cultures of the world practised some form of religion and each community created gods in its own image. About 10,000 years ago some of our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers. Humans were developing in step with each other even though they were on opposite sides of the planet, cities were built and were located in close proximity to large sources of water as irrigation was essential to all of them, they built canals, dikes and dams, and devices based on the principle of the lever were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia to raise water and pour it into canals

Although writing such as the cuneiform system was developed, along with mathematics, geometry and astronomical observations were conducted, Shaver points out that “none of these huge civilisations produced 'natural philosophy; the rational study of the intrinsic properties and workings of the natural and physical world the basis of modern science” and that “there was not a single natural philosopher known to us in any of these civilisations in spite of their wealth, size and millennia of history of existence. Why?”

The answer Shaver gives is that survival was uppermost for learned individuals, who were mostly employed in the workings of the state, and were constrained by the belief that it was religion that answered questions by invoking a god or other mythological ways to gather explanations. Certainly, he says, the priesthoods would have suppressed any independent thoughts, as kingdoms were ruled by a mandate from the gods, and the marriage of religion, politics and power.

It was the 'Greek Miracle' in the sixth century that the rise of science occurred, the world view changed from being dominated by mythology and religion, to causes that were part of the real world “the world was to be explained by science not by religion”, and the various schools of natural philosophy developed creating thousands of these Greek thinkers.

He outlines the work of many of the Greek philosophers, whose thinking laid the foundation of modern science. Men such as Thales of Miletus (625-545 BC) who is said to have predicted the solar eclipse of 28th May, 585 BC, Thales sought to explain the universe in natural rather than supernatural terms, and was followed by subsequent Greek philosophers over the next thousand years. Besides being considered the first true astronomer and mathematician, he also worked on metaphysics, ethics, history, engineering and geography, calculated the height of the pyramids from triangulation, and explored magnetism and static electricity.

Shaver then sets out the contributions to knowledge of many celebrated Greek philosophers. Pythagoras (570-495 BC) is best known for his geometric theorem, but he also contributed to music, astronomy and medicine. The 5th century Leucippus, was the originator of an atomic theory which asserting everything in the material world had a natural explanation. His most famous student was Democritus (420 BC) who is widely considered the father of modern science. He proposed that all matter is made of atoms (atmos meaning indivisible), clustered in groups. He also suggested that light consisted of atoms in transit, and that the universe was originally composed of atoms in chaos, collisions ultimately forming larger units such as Earth. As well as this early atomic theory, he also wrote on epistemology, aesthetics, mathematics, ethics, politics and biology.

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a towering figure in philosophy concentrating on moral issues. He did not make a direct contribution to science but Shaver shows that his method of enquiry had an influence on the scientific method, maintaining that scientific ideas have to stand up to scrutiny. His student Plato (428-348 BC) was a central figure and his most famous student was Aristotle, the three of them laid the foundations of western philosophy and science. Mathematics was central for Plato who said the real world can only be deduced through rational thought and mathematical truths are perfect, unlike the physical world of our senses.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered to be the 'Father of Zoology' had by far the greatest impact on the development of science. His vast output of 170 works on the natural sciences had a dominant influence through Islamic, medieval and Renaissance times until the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century.

Modern day scientific discoveries are unfolding at a rapid rate in every area and Shaver shows how advances in astronomy have benefited enormously from the new technologies that have become available over the last century. The entire electromagnetic spectrum has become accessible for astronomical observation: the radio, millimetre and optical wavebands are now observable with ground based telescopes as well as the infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. Giant telescopes have been built, outfitted with huge high-tech instruments backed up by massive computing power, extending our observational reach to the farthest limits.




Shaver describes the 'Roads to Knowledge' as “curiosity, intelligence, freedom, education, self-motivation and determination are clearly essential. Luck and serendipity can sometimes play a role - stumbling onto a discovery, or finding a vital clue that leads to a major development”. He makes the important point that even mistakes can have beneficial consequences. War and peace are certainly important factors as many resources are concentrated during wartime and developed in peacetime. He gives examples such as code-breaking leading to the development of computer science, and the research into atomic weapons leading to the study of the subatomic world and the development of beneficial peaceful uses.

Many of the figures the author describes have shown a incredible determination to progress in their research. Galileo joined a monastery and became a medical student before becoming a tutor of mathematics and science, Newton at sixteen years old managed to avoid being a farmer and obtained a position at Cambridge, Herschel built his own telescopes and spent decades alone studying the heavens.

Shaver continues his account with the growth in the number of scientists (he calculates approximately eight million working in the world today) and the fact that the world currently spends 1.5 trillion dollars per year on research. Large international collaborations are becoming more commonplace and they have the greatest impact on science. Shaver goes on to show the development of the great inventions of the day, and describes possible future paths such as the 'quantum computer' allowing vast numbers of multiple states to be acted upon in parallel, and the remarkable 'slug slime” a glue that will stick skin, arteries and internal organs even a beating heart.

Science is integral to the fabric of society, we are reminded that science has risen and fallen three times over the last two and a half thousand years, and even in the last century has faced threats such as the Nazis burning books of 'Jewish science', China’s anti-intellectual 'Cultural Revolution', and most recently from radical Islamic fundamentalists. He makes the remarkable claim that “Our own evolution may also have accelerated over the years, and may now be as much as a hundred times faster than it was a few million years ago”.

In his conclusion Shaver says “The biggest developments of the far future may well come from discoveries that have not yet been made, and that we at present cannot even imagine. The mind boggles at what the future may hold for us. It will be quite an adventure”.

As well as being a comprehensive history of science, this is a well-written and very readable volume, with the author's enthusiasm and authority shining through. It is an ideal introduction to the development of scientific thought for the interested general reader, and could well be a standard textbook for schools, which would instil a real enthusiasm for science as well as provide the basic facts. I recommend this book wholeheartedly. – Gerrard Russell

17 January 2019

THE FALL AND RISE OF MODERN MAGIC

Edward Beyer and Randall Styers. Magic in the Modern World: Strategies of Repression and Legitimization. Penn State U.P., 2018.

Until recently, the idea that magic had been gradually removed from the modern world – the idea of ‘disenchantment’ - had been the standard attitude of historians and other scholars for over a hundred years. It was been perhaps expressed most clearly in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). The Reformation and the Enlightenment were seen as having removed magic from the world of everyday external experience, and internalised it purely in terms of subjective belief.

The first section of this book – the ‘strategies of repression’ - comprises four essays which describe how this process of disenchantment attempted to divorce magic from secular and scientific consideration. Randall Styers's 'Bad Habits, or How Superstition Disappeared in the Modern World' looks at how ‘superstition’ was changed from a religious to a purely psychological concept. Originally used to describe supernatural manifestations in a religious context – which could be either malign or beneficial – it gradually turned into a description of ‘wrongthink’, condemning those irrational ideas which were seen as incompatible with modernity.

Benedict Lang’s piece, 'Why Magic Cannot be Falsified by Experiments' considers the assumption that magical practices can be verified in the same way as scientific experiments, through verification by reproducing effects. He explains that main reason this does not appear to happen is because of the number of variables that might be seen to influence the result of a magical process. These cannot be adjusted for in the same way they can for a laboratory experiment, although in describing a personally conducted experiment involving a bottle of after-shave and a glass of Australian Cabernet, Lang also demonstrates that the repeatability of conventional scientific experiments has its own problems, which have often been overlooked by later writers

Adam Jortner's chapter, 'Witches as Liars' examines how witchcraft and magic were viewed in the early American republic, as enemies of the new nation's democratic values. Magic was the direct opposite of reason, and reason was proclaimed as the basis of free and democratic government. The arguments against magic were promoted through historical studies, with the Salem witch trials of a century earlier being used as an example of government being disrupted through magical beliefs, allowing an unscrupulous individual to exert power over the populace.

The message was also spread through fictional accounts and theatrical presentations. William Pinchbeck achieved fame through a touring magical act, which involved amongst other wonders a 'Goat of Knowledge', turning later into an 'Amazing Randi' style debunker, explaining to the formerly gullible public who lapped up his performances exactly how the 'magic' was produced.

Of course, even in the new, rational Jeffersonian republic there were still people immersed in the depth of magic and credulity, such as Native- and African-Americans. A certain David Reese wrote a book with the striking title of Humbugs of New York; Being a Remonstrance against Popular Delusions Whether in Science, Philosophy or Religion, where he made it clear that those most vulnerable to such humbuggery were the “weak sisters and female brethren [sic] whose intellectual imbecility renders them an easy prey to delusion”.


The second half of the book, 'Magic in Modernity', considers 'Legitimisation', consisting of a second set of four essays looking at contemporary magical thought and practice. The first essay, by Egil Asprem considers the use by contemporary magical practitioners of John Dee's 'Enochian' Angel alphabet. But Asprem says that modern magicians using this system take little notice of Dee's original sources and his prophetic purpose, instead using sources which have been mediated through nineteenth and early twentieth century writers and practitioners. In many cases they were basing their practice on the Enochian messages described in Meric Casaubon's True and Faithful Relation, which was actually written denouncing Dee's angelic magic, which Casaubon thought were actually actually produced by evil spirits. Outlining the way in which Dee's original texts were re-interpreted and re-discovered by later writers, he finds a “cacophony of practices, theories, interpretations and discourses building on Dee's material” and concludes that many modern practitioners of 'Enochian' magic have been working from almost totally fictional material.

This is an approach which practitioners of magical systems based around the so-called Necronomicon might quite openly endorse. The version of the Necronomicon that Dan Harms describes appeared first in New York City in 1977, attributed to the pseudonymous 'Simon'. Since then there have been numerous versions from different publishers. The Necronomicon is of course the totally fictitious book of 'forbidden knowledge' invented by horror writer H P Lovecraft, and in his fictional history it was translated from the original Arabic into English by John Dee himself, presumably just a hundred yards or so away from where I am writing this!

Harms claims that Simon's version of the Necronomicon is not a hoax, as its origins are quite transparent, concluding that the Necronomicon established its authority with practising magicians, “not through reference to magic itself, but through our postmodern conceptions of what magic should be”

The conflict, and indeed close relationship between magic and science is examined in Erik Davis's account of the life and work of the magician and rocket scientist Jack Parsons. His involvement in magic developed in the libertarian and libertine atmosphere of post-war Californian bohemian society, where he met characters such as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Davis sees Parsons as a postmodernist figure - resembling the practitioners of Necronomicon rituals - who drew his inspiration from traditional magical roots, literary, and scientific sources in a way that seemed to integrate science and magic.

Seiðr was a form of Norse ritual magic, dating from Viking and pre-Viking times, and historically performed exclusively by women. In the Nordic sagas, it was considered an attack on a man's virility to charge him with practising seiðr, and an example is given of the trickster Loki taunting Oðinn about his masculinity by making such an accusation. This has caused problems for contemporary Neopagan and and Heathens – a term largely signifying attachment to North European traditions – and this chapter analyses the historical and modern significance of gender and gender politics for contemporary practitioners. This is perhaps the least accessible essay in this collection, requiring a significant amount of background knowledge to fully follow the argument.

Perhaps the main value of this collection is not so much in each individual contribution, but in adding a great deal of scholarly weight to the voices increasingly challenging the 'disenchantment' theory of the history of magic, and establishing contemporary magical practices as subjects worthy of scholarly study. – John Rimmer


14 January 2019

LAW AND LEGEND

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer. The Talmud: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Until fairly recently, most non-Jews had either never heard of the Talmud, or else were under the impression that it gave instructions upon how to sacrifice Christian children. It is actually a massive compendium of early Jewish thought. The core of it, termed the Mishnah, is a systematic law code. The bulk of the work is a discursive commentary on this known as Gemara. Analysts divide the contents in halakhah (law) and aggadah (non-law, mostly legend).

For a representative example of halakah, Wimpfheimer takes a basic legal decision from the Mishnah: ‘A dog who took a cake [baking on top of hot coals] and went to a haystack, it ate the cake and set fire to the haystack: on account of the cake [an owner] pays full damages, but on the haystack [an owner pays] half-damages.’

This passage produced endless commentaries by later writers, for instance Maimonides (twelfth century), whose Mishnah Torah was an attempt to produce a more systematic codification of Jewish law. But Rabad, ‘the established leading rabbi of Provence’ disagreed so strongly that he wrote a sharp gloss on it while he was on his death bed: he said that the dog’s owner should be liable for the whole haystack, not only one half.

For aggadah, he picks out one of the most implausible legends: that when the Children of Israel reached Mount Sinai, ‘the Holy One Blessed Be He overturned the mountain like a barrel over them and said to them, “It is good if you all accept the Torah, but if not . . . there will be your burial site”.’ This was deduced from a single word in the Book of Exodus (19:17), betahtit, “at the foot of”; the prefix be- is unnecessary, so it was interpreted as meaning that they were not at the base of the mountain, but literally underneath it.

In many places the Talmud gives various rival opinions without adjudicating between them. Ezekiel (37:1-14) had a vision of dead bones coming back to life. ‘One early rabbi asserts that the bones were brought to life for a moment, they sang a song and they expired. This occasions a reaction from a colleague who thinks that this is too literal a rendering: the dry bones, in his view, are a hypothetical parable. A group of later rabbis disagrees with both ideas. The dry bones’ corpses, says one rabbi, got married and had children and grandchildren in the land of Israel. Another rabbi adds to this claim by asserting that one of his ancestors was one of these dry bones people and the rabbi possesses his ancestor’s phylacteries.’

In 1240, at the behest of Louis IX of France, the Talmud was put on trial. It was found guilty and sentenced to be burnt. Some twenty carloads of handwritten Talmuds went up in smoke, at a site normally used for executing humans, but fortunately this was not the end.

The first printed editions were incunabula, that is, from before 1500. These were only of single tractates. The first complete edition was produced at Venice by Daniel Bomberg between 1520 and 1523. In this, the text was framed by the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), and Tosafist commentary. This was successful enough to establish a fixed pagination for the body of the entire Talmud (though this must have created headaches for the typesetters of all subsequent editions).




It became more widely distributed than ever before. The first volume of the 1880-1886 edition produced at Vilnius by the Romm Press sold more than 22,000 copies in its first year. One interesting edition was the 'Survivor’s Talmud'. In 1946 a delegation of rabbis approached the United States military about the unavailability of the Talmud for the many Jews displaced by the Nazis. So they requisitioned a printing house in Heidelberg and brought out a 'beautiful' photo-offset edition.

The Vilna edition has become absolutely standard, so that, for instance, among Orthodox Jews, it is a standard practice for a bride’s family to present the groom with a full set of the Talmud as a wedding present, but it has to be the Vilna edition. Most curiously, among ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel, it is absolutely forbidden for females to study the Talmud, but this is, again, only applied to the Vilna edition, so that women and girls ‘are permitted to study from worksheets onto which the Talmud’s digital text has been pasted.’

It is unfortunate that limitations of size mean that many things have had to be left out. He mentions that the original Venice printing of the Talmud was purchased by, among others Henry VIII of England. Space, I suppose, did not permit him to describe how Henry VIII later engaged a Talmudic scholar as part of his (unsuccessful) campaign to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

I think that a glossary and list of abbreviations would have been useful. More than once in his notes he references “two JTS manuscripts”. I think this may stand for 'Jewish Theological Seminary', but he does not say so. – Gareth J. Medway


11 January 2019

THE MAN WHO MADE THE BLOTS

Damion Searls. The Inkblots - Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. Broadway Books, 2018.

When I first took a look at the cover of this book, the main title prompted a stray thought to arise in my mind.  Was this not the name of a black American vocal group that was popular in the 1940s and early 50s? An online check quickly confirmed that they were, of course, known as 'The Ink Spots'. Presumably they chose that name to emphasise that they were all black, but they were certainly not making any reference to the famous 'Rorschach Inkblot Test', nor do they have any relevance to this book review. 

My point in mentioning that trivial query is to give an illustration of how our human minds work, by association. This happens most obviously with words and images.  Word association research for psychological insights was pioneered by Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton. The participant was instructed to say the first word that came to mind on hearing each word in a series given by the researcher. Freud and Jung both experimented with the technique for what it might reveal about the subconscious.

When it comes to the use of images to explore the subconscious of a participant by their response to, or interpretation of, an abstract 'ink blot' shape, Hermann Rorschach (1884 - 1922) is the man we remember. And yet, apart from his eponymous test, what else do we know of him? In general, very little, which is why this book is of such great interest. Until now there has not been a full biography of Rorschach's tragically short life. In fact, this book is effectively two biographies in one. The first part gives us an overall appreciation of the man, his life, career and character. The second part covers the evolution and usage of the Ink Blot Test itself over the more than 100 years of its life, or perhaps the term 'afterlife' would be more apt.

The photograph of Rorschach on the book's cover shows a surprisingly modern-looking man in the prime of life, handsome and charismatic in a way that is very reminiscent of the film star Brad Pitt. His hair is short and spiky, adding to his visual appeal, but I felt there was a quality in his eyes that revealed a young man with deep intelligence, curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy. These are indeed the qualities that Searls skilfully presents to create a living portrait of Rorschach from the mass of source material, such as personal letters, that he painstakingly gathered for this project.

As the final part of the subtitle confirms, Searls develops a theme that runs through the whole book, that of 'the power of seeing', the key to understanding the simple genius of the Inkblot Test in which there is no right or wrong answer.  It all depends on your perception. "Tell me what you see" is a prompt that may be used by the practitioner to invite the subject to reveal personal associations and thought processes in a way that is not obviously judgemental. Rorschach's emphasis on the quality of empathy is all about how we connect with the world around us, both in our inner associations and how we project them back to others.

RORSCHACH INKBLOT NO. 9. WHAT WOULD SOMEONE WHO'S READ JOHN KEEL MAKE OF THIS?

Rorschach was fascinated by inkblots from an early age. Searls reveals a most interesting fact from his research: "In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach's nickname in school was 'Klex', the German word for 'inkblot'. Was young Blot Rorschach already tinkering with ink, his destiny foretold?"

For one interested in destiny and life purpose, synchronicity is often a signpost to help make a decision, or to confirm a meaning to what has already happened. Searls refers to 1884, the year of Rorschach's birth, as a "light-bringing year. The Statue of Liberty, officially titled 'Liberty Enlightening the World', was presented to the US ambassador in Paris on America's Independence Day." It was also the year that electric street-lights first appeared in continental Europe, and in America the first workable roll of photographic film was patented by George Eastman. Zurich, where Rorschach was born, was a modern, dynamic city, the largest in Switzerland, and a melting pot of intellect and innovation.

Fate intervened in young Hermann's life on several occasions. Searls tells some engaging stories of a happy childhood, with a sister and then a brother coming after him into a happy family. But his dear mother died when he was only 12, a severe blow. His father re-married but the three children suffered yet more when their fears of having a 'wicked stepmother' became all too true. She was rigid and "strict to the point of cruelty", although years later his kind heart moved him to express appreciation for her in letters to his sister Anna, to whom he remained very close. In 1903 his father became ill and died when Hermann was only 19. He had to grow up quickly, and it was this event that galvanized him into the decision to train and pursue a career helping the afflicted in mental health asylums.

Rorschach could have been a great artist. He was inspired by his father, an art teacher, and might have followed that path had his father not died at that time when we was still weighing up his options. On page 17 of the book there are two classical portrait drawings side by side, one by his father and one by Hermann. They are both impressively excellent, conveying the idiosyncratic expressions and characters of the elderly male subjects. This alone showed me that the young Rorschach had an eye of compassion and empathy, which must have served him and his patients very well.

He did find happiness with a good wife, a Russian woman named Olga with whom he became engaged in 1909, the same year he graduated in medicine. They went on to have two children, but they did not in turn produce any offspring so there are no living descendants of Rorschach in the world today. But he lives on in his ten standardised inkblot images and the test he devised that to this day, despite controversies along the way, is still used in some psychological assessments. And now, thanks to Damion Searls' very fine biography, Hermann Rorschach will deservedly be remembered as a man as well as a name. – Kevin Murphy


7 January 2019

BLOOD AND SOUL

Nick Groom. The Vampire, A New History. Yale University Press, 2018.

Vampires are proving to be an inexhaustible subject of study for academics, novelists and filmmakers. I myself wrote a collection of short stories in 1999 called The Other Side of the Mirror (Citron Press.) In that book I explored the vampire as a metaphor for dark traits of human behaviour, other than bloodletting. Such ideas (perhaps too many) also inform Nick Groom’s fascinating book, The Vampire, A New History.

If you are expecting a comprehensive book covering all vampires since the dawn of time then you will be disappointed. Groom is an expert on matters Gothic and could be described as a vampirologist pursuing a specific vampire remit. Although his introduction sketches in bloodsucking ghouls, ghosts and other monsters Groom’s main concern is for the bona fide eighteenth and nineteenth century vampire (fact and fiction) that led up to Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1897.

“…the novel is so profoundly informed by the myriad deliberations of its time on vampires, blood, science, technology and literature that all paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, on which I focus in this book…”

Groom’s book is a new history in so far as it rewardingly provides us with “the first extended study to unite these two realms.” Those realms being the cultures of artistic endeavour, science, metaphysics, science, identity and territory: brought to the realm of the complex personality of Dracula.

Two questions then. Do vampires really exist? And whether they do or not has Nick Groom convinced me that a history of the vampire still matters? (“Vampires are good to think with.”)

As to their existence, Groom discusses “the empirical scientific encounter with ‘real’ East European vampires.” And rather than claim vampires are real beings the thought that they might be is correctly suspended. For this is a highly intelligent and scholarly work that never sensationalises the vampire as a real sanguine menace. Yet Groom’s admirable research is accompanied by such a passionate enthusiasm for his subject matter that it left me wondering if Groom does really want to believe in vampires. Such an intense fixation on the vampirisation of culture sometimes pushes Groom to the edge. In the book’s conclusion titled Crawling and Creeping, Living With Vampires, he states.

“I have tried to resist essentializing the vampire as an elemental mythic type, or turning it into a canvas on which to portray the whole spectrum of contemporary critical thinking.”

But in the preceding paragraph he authoritatively says, “…perhaps we are living not so much in the anthropocene period (as people aver more and more frequently) as in the vampirocene era – an era in which the human race has transformed the world, but in doing so has also lost its primacy. In the vampirocene, the world is no longer anthropocentric: it is nihilocentric.”

My dictionary definition of anthropocene is “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Whilst anthropocentric is defined as “regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals.”

So is Nick Groom saying that in an era of vampires (or rampant, bloodletting capitalist progress) the world no longer has a reliable moral compass (or no beliefs at all) so it may disappear down some dark, empty hole? And that the vampire is our nihilistic self as much as an imagined projection?

If so, I don’t buy into an argument as dark as that.

On the subject of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Groom is at his persuasive best giving us insights and a fresh reading of the ideas coded in the novel. That chapter and the preceding one, on the vampires of nineteenth century Romanticism, engaged me the most. If Groom ever writes an introduction to a new edition of Dracula then this material would be very apposite (It’s as compelling as Groom’s superlative introduction to last year’s centenary edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

Despite my qualms about a certain over-immersion, and therefore the occasional hyperbolic assertion of the vampire, as a cultural contagion, and Groom only spending a meagre twelve pages on the vampire cultural industry, this book remains a rich and provocative achievement. But be warned it’s not for the beginner in vampirology. I suggest you read Christopher Frayling’s Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula and Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality before immersing yourself in The Vampire – which certainly maps out its own unique territory of thought. – Alan Price


3 January 2019

WATCH THE SKIES

Jonathan Powell. Rare Astronomical Sights and Sounds. Springer Nature, 2018

“Our ancestors lived and died by observations and rituals created around annual events in the sky.” “To acknowledge the sky and its perceived power, many sacrifices were made, all of which were observed with great timing and accuracy.” Thus begins our journey from the past to the present and on into the future. The journey is both interesting and informative, as the author discusses how our ancestors were continually challenged in the way they saw the skies and how they corrected and augmented their findings over thousands of years.

He uses philosophical phrases throughout, such as: “What distinguishes the passage of time to and from multiple zones in one’s life are certain key features that turn the ordinary to the extraordinary where the automation is temporarily eclipsed by a bright flash, or a sound that momentarily breaks the silence in a world that has so much noise”. This is what happens when studying the wonders of the Universe. He also makes other interesting points, for example that objective times can move at the same pace and it is merely the perception of time and its usage that makes the difference. Some of the greatest unanswered questions are linked to time.

Ancient Egyptian myths clearly relate to the riddles of the night sky. Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) found that the majority of Egyptian temples had an east-west orientation and were also oriented to sunrise at midsummer towards the brightest star in our skies, Sirius, the Dog Star. Lockyer also estimated the approximate year of construction of Stonehenge from the evident orientation of the Heel-Stone to sunrise at midsummer.

There are many inclusions of myths and facts about American Indians and the Incas. Astronomy played a vital role to them due to the importance of agriculture. “Cuzco city was the political and spiritual focal point of the Incas. It was laid out in a radial plan that mimicked the night sky. This strong link is exemplified by the emergence of the Pleiades star cluster above the horizon. As the cluster rose, it marked the beginning of the Inca new year”. “The use of astronomy was chiefly dedicated to agriculture. The Incas carefully erected stone pillars on the foothills overlooking Cuzco to match specific orientations, and when the Sun rose or set between the pillars it was time to plant at specific altitudes. These pillars formed a massive timepiece, marking time as accurately as possible for the high altitudes right down to the floor of the valley. The Incas made sacrifices to the Sun in the hope that the Sun would rise in the proper place for this planting”.

Powell explains that the Phoenicians were the first civilisation known to have discovered glass-making around 5000BC while cooking over fire in the sandy desert. Around 3500BC the first known glass artefacts appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia. 5000 years later glass was eventually shaped into accurate lenses to create the first telescope by the Dutch-German spectacle maker Hanns Lippershey (1570-1619), who was also one of the first to try to obtain a patent for the device, filed in 1608, “for seeing things far away as if they were near”. There is a tale that one day in his optics shop two children, while playing, combined together the lenses that made the image of a distant weather vane appear closer. Another story claims that Lippershey stole the design from a fellow eyeglass maker Zacharis Jansen (1585-1632).

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) improved the magnification of the spy-glass from three up to a factor of nine times. Using his own device, he studied craters on the moon and made detailed tracking observations of the phases of Venus. He also famously discovered the four inner moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, which had a huge impact on the world of astronomy.

In 1615 it was heresy to go against the directive from the Church that celestial bodies orbited the Earth. Galileo revealed that the heliocentric Copernican system was correct. He was summoned to Rome and warned not to teach or write about his theory, but he stubbornly believed that if he could mathematically prove that his argument was correct it would be accepted by the Church. However, the Church remained intransigent. In 1632 he was again summoned to Rome and charged with heresy, spending the remaining years of his life under house arrest.

The author relates that “after learning to locate the simple wonders of the night sky, from the craters on the Moon to Saturn’s rings and beyond, the eagerness to observe rarities of astronomical nature may entice the observer to seek out a more specialised field. For some, comets become the obsession, while for others it is deep sky observations, with a proportion solely interested in asteroids and other small debris”.


It is clear that the author revelled in writing this book and he is filled with the wonder of collecting data on the celestial movements of this Universe. On the subject of Rare Transits he supplies a lot of detail on those of Mercury and Venus: “There are vast differences between the transits that occur in May and those that occur in November, with November transits only 10 arcseconds in diameter, as Mercury is near perihelion. An arcsecond is a unit of measurement that amounts to one sixtieth of an arcminute, equal to 1/3600 degrees of an arc” This kind of information may seem overly complex, but I would not let this deter the general reader from buying the book. There is a lot of good reading and a learning curve is always present in these pages.

There is more helpful information for the would-be astronomer in this book. Different organisations around the world recommend the best quality sites in which to view the night skies. The International Dark-sky Association] has five types of designations: International Dark Sky Communities, International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark Sky Reserves, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries and Dark Sky Developments of Distinction. They have instigated an order of merit ranging from Gold, Silver and Bronze, further broken down into nine classes to evaluate the darkness and usefulness of an observing site.

The Northern and Southern Lights phenomena in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand is explained clearly. Many other countries have their own special astronomical observations that are particularly impressive. For example, in New Zealand the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve provides some of the best sights of the Southern Hemisphere, including Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross, and the Southern Star. The reserve is also the biggest designated by the IDA,  measuring 4,500kmSq.

Of course, the Sun at the heart of our Solar System, at a distance of 150 million km from Earth, receives special attention from the author. “This middle-aged yellow star shines its way through the depths of space to breathe life into our world. Its heat and light warm Earth’s surface, driving weather patterns, ocean currents, and the process of photosynthesis”. The Sun, approx. 4.5 billion years old, is 109 times larger in diameter than the Earth but is in fact actually quite small for a star in relative terms. For comparison, the red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion is 1,000 times larger than the Sun, while the largest known star, VY Canis Majoris, measures 2,000 times larger than the Sun. At the core lies one of the most powerful processes in the Universe, that of nuclear fusion; hydrogen nuclei smash together forming helium and releasing substantial amounts of energy. The core temperature reaches 14 million degrees C and as long as this fuel burns the Sun and every other star will continue to generate light and heat until the source of the fuel is eventually exhausted.

The other Chapters contain more information about halos, sundogs, sun pillars and the Parhelic Circle (the circles generated vertical or nearly vertical by ice crystals of any shape reflecting sunlight or moonlight). We are also given The Belt of Venus, Moon Illusion, Earthshine, Blue Moon and Red Moon, Moonbow and many others. The Noisy Universe section mainly concerns Radio Astronomy and cosmic objects that produce signals such as Pulsars and Quasars. All in all, it is a comprehensive book on the sights and sounds of the night sky and all its mysteries. It is a never-ending quest of discovery and many more revelations are surely yet to come! -- Gerrard Russell


2 January 2019

MAGONIA'S 2018 CHART TOPPERS

In the world of Magonia, the wish “May you live in interesting times” does not have the negative meaning that it is supposed to in the Old Chinese Proverb (whether or not this is in fact an Old Chinese Proverb is a debate for another time), so it is our New Year wish to our readers that they do indeed live in very interesting times full of Magonian strangeness, weirdness and general Forteaness.

It has become our New Year tradition to look back and see which of the reviews and articles published in Magonia Review over the past year have stimulated the greatest interest from our readers. As you might expect, the articles published in the early months of the year tend to dominate, but there are always a few surprises from the end of the year as well and 2018 has been no exception to this pattern.

In tenth place is my review of Kevin Randle's comprehensive re-examination of the Soccorro case, Encounter in the Desert. Randle's tentative conclusion tends towards an ET explanation for the case, but he is an intelligent and experienced investigator and is aware as any sceptic of the problems such a hypothesis throws up.

Ninth on the list is Michael Shermer. Heavens on Earth, the Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia. Robin Carlyle takes issue with Shermer's main contention, saying that “For him all religion is simply an invention to fill a longing in mankind for a sense of purpose”. However, he finds Shermer's thoughts on progress and pessimism to be the best parts of the book.

The battle between two giants of invention is recounted in Joel Martin and William J. Birnes' book Edison vs. Tesla - The Battle over their Last Invention, which is eighth in our top-ten list, and was reviewed by Kevin Murphy. It is clear that although Edison may, in the public perception at least, have won the battle, both men helped shape the twentieth century, and despite his talent for life-changing invention, Edison never achieved his last great aim, the 'spirit telephone'.

Our number seven title looks at the liminal world of North American big-cats. Michael Mayes Shadow Cats is a down-to-earth cryptozoological study and catalogue of anomalous feline sightings in the USA, eschewing any psychic or paranormal speculations. Wrapping up his review Gerard Russell concludes: “I was rather sceptical when I first started reading this book, but I feel I am becoming a convert!”

James McClenon's The Entity Letters is largely a review of the SORRAT 'mini-lab' experiments, during which otherwise inexplicable changes were claimed to have been observed on objects inside tightly-sealed containers. Robin Carlyle's review is sixth on our list, and he concludes that although the experiments seem to have been bedevilled by possible fraud and poor design, there may still lessons to be learned from them by serious researchers.

Jenny Randles made a welcome appearance as a Magonia reviewer with her assessment of Eric Wargo's Time Loops. Jenny has herself written two books on time paradoxes, so it is impressive that she finds this title to be “the most interesting and well-argued book about a paranormal topic I have read in years”  and which has implications about time, space, and the paranormal.

Number four is my review of Sharon Hill's account, not of paranormal phenomena, but of the people who study those phenomena, the Scientifical Americans of the title. It exposes the sensationalist and sometimes fraudulent nature of many TV paranormal programmes, and although many amateur investigators are sincere in their approach, most are hopelessly ill-equipped to undertake and significant research. She makes an honourable exception for some cryptozoological researchers.

A guest review from Janet Bord takes third place, with her assessment of Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook's book Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present. This is a study of modern-day, fairy 'experiences', reported by individuals, rather than handed down legends and folktales.

The second place was taken up by Kevin Murphy's review of Jason A. Josephson-Storm's The Myth of Disenchantment - Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences. This takles a topic which is increasingly coming under consideration, the re-evalation of the concept of 'disenchantment', the supposed removal of magical any mystical elements, originally propogated by Frank Weber in the nineteenth century. The author responded to Kevin's review by inviting readers to question him via Magonia Review's comments link, and several did so, receiving a detailed reply from the author.

Number one on our list is not a review, but a summary by Gareth Medway of the so-called Alien Autopsy' Affair tracing its development from a derelict flat in Camden Town posing as a NASA laboratory, to Hollywood stardom. This entertaining account demonstrates yet again how the so-called 'experts' – what Peter Rogerson called the 'Herr Professors' – can be so easily fooled by the simplest of tricks, so long as they confirm what they want to have confirmed.

So we enter a new year, which may or may not – probably not – be the year in which the great revelation about UFOs will take place. I'm a little surprised that no-one has yet found a UFO angle to Brexit, or indeed a Brexit angle to UFOs. But whatever, a Happy New Year to you all, and we'll be around trying to keep you up to speed on all the latest weird and wonderful books that 2019 will undoubtedly bring forth. -- John Rimmer

19 December 2018

HITLER'S MONSTERS

Eric Kurlander. Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich. Yale, 2017.

If you think that the world is descending into madness, you will find plenty more here, the madness being not that of an erudite author but that of his subject matter, namely the irrational belief system that underpinned National Socialism. It seems scarcely credible today that a modern state should descend to the depths that Nazism reached between 1933 and 1945, and ever since historians, not to say mankind itself, has been struggling to comprehend the motivations of those who perpetrated depravities, one of which, the Holocaust, Churchill famously described as "the greatest crime in the whole of human history".

There were events such as the First World War, which of course, played their part in causing the Second World War, but those events, in themselves are not capable of explaining the depths to which National Socialism sank. In examining the supernatural belief system of the Nazi state, the author, at least begins to provide an answer.

The scope of the book is immense, and appears to aim at becoming the definitive work on the subject, since every aspect, however apparently trivial, has been included. The general reader may find for this reason the book to be a challenging read, but such effort will undoubtedly reap dividends. The author covers the entire period of National Socialism's existence as well as its origins. Supernaturally, those origins were located in the Thule Society, which "focused on occult and border scientific thinking", and which "wanted a Greater Germany devoid of Jews, Freemasons and Communists" and influenced several top Nazis, including Hitler, albeit that he later tried to sever the Party's links to it. Also inspiration was drawn for their "supernatural musings on race and space in the interwar Artamanen movement", founded in 1924 by an ethnic German emigré from Transylvania, and which also propagated ariosophic and theosophic ideas.

Its most prominent recruit was Himmler, who once in power founded the Ahnenerbe, a kind of supernatural think tank, and the book recounts a long litany of extremely daft ideas which were tried out under his auspices, but which often emanated from the Ahnenerbe and its acolytes. One can recount just a few here and you will get the idea: using divining rods to locate enemy ships in the war of the Atlantic; promoting the development of a ray that would locate oil fields, and even the building of an anti-gravity machine (Schauber's Repulsine). But once into the war, it was no holds barred for experimentation on human beings in the interest of researching border science.

One of Kurlander's accounts I found particularly chilling when he describes how one researcher Bruno Beger got approval from Adolf Eichmann to visit Auschwitz to select his own subjects for experimentation for his work on racial types, for which he needed human skeletons. On arrival, he selected seventuy-nine male Jews, two Poles, four Central Asians and thirty female Jews, and they were shipped to a concentration camp near to his base at Strasbourg University; a makeshift gas chamber was built and the prisoners murdered.

As for Hitler himself, in public he appeared to shy away from the direct association with occult groups, no doubt because he did not wish to be mocked for his beliefs, which included the effectiveness of dowsing and World Ice Theory. More has previously been written by historians about the nature of his anti-Semitism, some even speculating that it was opportunistic. Kurlander does not doubt the genuineness of it, albeit that he refers to Hitler's expertise as a crowd manipulator, and noting that Hitler had read Le Bon's Psychology of Crowds. I found his examination of the subject of Hitler's inner self expertly done, especially his judicious use of Jung's analysis that Hitler mirrored Germany's collective unconscious, as well as his citing of the journalist Rudolph Olden who in 1932 did not see Hitler as a conviction politician/statesman but rather as a "prophet regularly in a state of narcissistic conviction".

I was completely unaware of the fact that there was a significant difference between Germany and her enemies in a small but possibly crucial respect, namely the extent to which large numbers of Germans were in thrall to occult ideas; to back this up Kurlander recounts the fact that there were 3,000 tarot readers in Berlin alone during the war. The Nazi leadership was ambivalent towards this characteristic, since, although they themselves cultivated the esoteric, they were anxious about what the public chose to believe since it was outside their control. As a result the activities of many occult practitioners were strictly curtailed with some being arrested, during what was known as the Hess Action during the late 1930's, only later for a number to be re-rehabilitated.

In an excellent, albeit too short, section on the Holocaust, Kurlander describes the demonization of Jews, a favourite Nazi motif being that of the Jew as a blood-sucking vampire. One really gets the feeling from his descriptions of this process, that one is getting a little bit closer to understanding how many Germans, and especially Hitler, thought about Jews: as a sort of germ to be eradicated to preserve the purity of German blood. Kurlander comments: "If the process of genocide was conducted in a highly technocratic fashion, its foundations lay in a conception of the Jews as supernatural monsters".

In his epilogue Kurlander again cites Jung who warns that other nations "will become victims of possession if, in their horror at the German guilt, they forget [that] they can just as suddenly become a victim of the demonic powers". These words appear peculiarly apposite for the times we are now living through. – Robin Carlile