I received my MA in philosophy of science many years ago and currently reviving my academic interests. I hope to stimulate individuals in the realms of science, philosophy and the arts...to provide as much free information as possible.
"Voyager 1's journey to solar system's edge upends theories"
The mysterious region 11 billion miles away proves to be even stranger than previously thought, according to Voyager's latest readings.
June 27th, 2013
Los Angeles Times
As the Voyager 1 spacecraft speeds toward interstellar space at a rate of about a million miles a day, the NASA probe is causing scientists to jettison some long-standing theories on the nature of our solar system and life along its cold, dark edge.
In three studies published Thursday in the journal Science, Voyager researchers provided the most detailed view yet of a mysterious region more than 11 billion miles from Earth, where the sun's ferocious solar winds slow to a whisper and pieces of atoms blasted across the galaxy by ancient supernovae drift into the solar system.
The area, which has been dubbed the "magnetic highway," is a newly discovered area of the heliosphere, the vast bubble of magnetism that surrounds the planets and is inflated by gusting solar winds. Like Earth's magnetosphere, which shields us from radioactive solar winds, the heliosphere shields the solar system from many of the cosmic rays that fill interstellar space.
Scientists had long envisioned its outermost layer, the heliosheath, to be a curved, distinct boundary separating the solar system from the rest of the Milky Way. They theorized that once Voyager 1 crossed that threshold, three things would happen: The sun's solar winds would become still; galactic cosmic rays would bombard Voyager from every angle; and the direction of the dominant magnetic field would change significantly because it would be coming from interstellar space, not the sun.
All of those predictions have been turned on their head by Voyager's latest instrument readings.
Although Voyager 1 is equipped with video cameras, they were shut off more than 20 years ago to save power and memory. Instead the craft observes its environment with a fragile, lattice-work antenna that measures magnetic fields as well as a cosmic ray detector and a plasma detector. (Befitting a space probe launched in 1977, the data are stored on an eight-track tape recorder.)
Toward the end of July 2012, Voyager 1's instruments reported that solar winds had suddenly dropped by half, while the strength of the magnetic field almost doubled, according to the studies. Those values then switched back and forth five times before they became fixed on Aug. 25. Since then, solar winds have all but disappeared, but the direction of the magnetic field has barely budged.
"The jumps indicate multiple crossings of a boundary unlike anything observed previously," a team of Voyager scientists wrote in one of the studies. They labeled the new area the heliosheath depletion region.
Stranger yet, Voyager 1 detected an increase in galactic cosmic rays — but found that at times they were moving in parallel instead of traveling randomly.
"This was conceptually unthinkable for cosmic rays," said Stamatios Krimigis, a solar physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and leader of another one of the studies. "There is no cosmic ray physicist I know who ever expected that they would not all be coming equally from all directions."
The confusion hasn't ended there.
One Voyager project scientist reported in March that the spacecraft had entered interstellar space after more than 35 years of travel. The paper by Bill Webber, a professor emeritus of astronomy at New Mexico State University, triggered a media furor in the process.
Scientists including Krimigis and Edward Stone, a Voyager project scientist at Caltech, contended that the probe had not left the solar system. Voyager 1 remained within the sun's zone of magnetic influence, and therefore within the heliosphere, they said.
"We're not free yet," Krimigis said. "This is a new region that we didn't know existed. We have no road map, and we're waiting to see what's going to happen next."
Theorists are struggling to explain the data. Some say the unexpected increase in magnetic strength is the result of spiraling magnetic fields being compressed against the interstellar medium. Others say this is impossible since there is no solar wind to push them against that boundary, and that there must be another explanation.
Len Fisk, a professor of space science at the University of Michigan, described the studies' findings as "a complete surprise." He said Voyager 1's travels were proving to be both puzzling and exciting.
"It's causing a fundamental reconsideration of how the heliosheath interacts with the local interstellar medium," said Fisk, who was not involved in the new analysis.
One of the possible explanations for Voyager's peculiar magnetic readings is that the sun's magnetic fields have combined with the interstellar magnetic field in places — a process called magnetic reconnection.
Such reconnection has been observed between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth, said Stone, a former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "Maybe that's what's happening here, but we really don't know," he said.
Adding still more mystery is the fact that Voyager 2 has yet to experience anything like its twin. Both spacecraft are headed toward the forward edge of the heliosphere, but are more than 9 billion miles apart.
Although Voyager 1 was launched 16 days after Voyager 2, it followed a more direct route toward the edge of the solar system. Since 1998, when it overtook Pioneer 10, it has been the farthest man-made object from Earth.
Voyager scientists say they're in no position to predict when the probe may finally exit the solar system. It could be months, or it could be years.
"I wouldn't dare to make an estimate," Krimigis said. "Voyager will probably prove us wrong, again."
"Voyager 1 finds that edge of solar system isn’t as defined as scientists once thought"
June 27th, 2013
The Washington Post
The edge of the solar system has no edge, it turns out. It has a fuzzy transitional area, not quite “solar system” and not quite “interstellar space.”
This basic fact of our star’s environment has been discovered by Voyager 1, one of the most remarkable spaceships ever built. Our premier scout of deep space, Voyager 1 is currently 11 billion miles from the sun, beaming data to Earth as it scoots at 38,000 mph toward the constellation Ophiuchus.
Scientists had assumed that Voyager 1, launched in 1977, would have exited the solar system by now. That would mean crossing the heliopause and leaving behind the vast bubble known as the heliosphere, which is characterized by particles flung by the sun and by a powerful magnetic field.
The scientists’ assumption turned out to be half-right. On Aug. 25, Voyager 1 saw a sharp drop-off in the solar particles, also known as the solar wind. At the same time, there was a spike in galactic particles coming from all points of the compass. But the sun’s magnetic field still registers, somewhat diminished, on the spacecraft’s magnetometer. So it’s still in the sun’s magnetic embrace, in a sense.
This unexpected transitional zone, dubbed the “heliosheath depletion region,” is described in three new papers about Voyager 1 published online Thursday by the journal Science.
“There were some surprises,” said Ed Stone, who has been the lead scientist of NASA’s Voyager program since 1972. “We expected that we would cross a boundary and leave all the solar stuff behind and be in all the interstellar stuff. It turned out, that’s not what happened.” How big is this transitional zone at the edge of the solar system?
“No one knows,” said Stone, 77, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and the former head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Voyager’s home base. “It’s not in any of the models. We don’t know. It could take us a few more months, it could take us several more years to get through it.”
The dimensions and nature of the heliosphere are not a wholly esoteric matter. The sun’s magnetic field deflects much of the radiation coming from other parts of the galaxy that was created in supernova explosions. Interstellar space is not a benign environment. The heliosphere’s features make life easier for blue planets such as Earth.
Voyager 1 can be counted as one of the great exploratory craft in history, and none has gone farther, nor cruised steadily at such astonishing speed (a few have briefly gone faster while falling into the sun). Two Voyager probes were launched in 1977. Both spaceships carried a gold-plated record crammed with digital information about human civilization, including mathematical formulas, an image of a naked man and woman, whale vocalizations, and clips of classical and rock-and-roll music. (The famous joke was that the aliens listened to the record and replied, “Send more Chuck Berry.”)
The two Voyagers embarked on what was called the Grand Tour, taking advantage of an orbital positioning of the four outer planets that happens less than once a century. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn before angling “north,” as astronomers would describe it. (There’s no up or down in space, but there is a north or south relative to the orbital plane of the planets.) Voyager 2 went past Jupiter and Saturn and flew by Uranus and Neptune before heading “south.”
The images of those planets and their moons, now taken for granted, were stunning triumphs of the Voyager mission. And in 1990, Voyager 1 , nearly 4 billion miles from the sun, turned its camera toward Earth and took an image of what Carl Sagan called the “pale blue dot” of our home planet.
Now Voyager 1 is 124 astronomical units from the sun — one AU being roughly the mean distance from Earth to the sun, or about 93 million miles. Voyager 2 is at 102 AU.
These spacecraft are not immortal, even if sometimes they act like it. They have a power supply from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238, which generates heat. The half-life of that system is 88 years. Small thrusters occasionally are fired to keep Voyager 1’s 23-watt radio antenna pointed toward Earth, where the faint signals are picked up on huge arrays of radio telescopes in the United States, Spain and Australia. But Stone anticipates that weakening power will force scientists to start shutting down scientific instruments on Voyager 1 in 2020 and that by 2025, the last instrument will be turned off. “It changed the way we view our place in the cosmos,” said Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who is chief executive of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. He said the new discovery by Voyager 1 is a classic example of why we explore: “What are you going to find over the unknown horizon? We don’t know. That why we explore out there.”
NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, Michael Gazarik, said of Voyager 1’s durability: “It is amazing, especially in the harsh environment of space. This piece of hardware has a life of its own.”
In 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be closer to another star (with the romantic name AC+79 3888) than to the sun. And then what? It will just keep going — a silent, dark craft on a seemingly eternal journey. “It will be orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy essentially for billions of years, like all the stars,” said Stone of what has been, for him, the spacecraft of a lifetime.
"Voyager 1 Discovers Bizarre and Baffling Region at Edge of Solar System"
June 27th, 2013
Not content with simply being the man-made object to travel farthest from Earth, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft recently entered a bizarre new region at the solar system’s edge that has physicists baffled. Their theories don’t predict anything like it.
Launched 36 years ago, Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 made an unprecedented tour of the outer planets, returning spectacular data from their journey. The first Voyager sped out of the solar system in 1980 and it has since been edging closer and closer to interstellar space. The probe is currently out more than 120 times the distance between the Earth and the sun.
Scientists initially thought that Voyager’s transition into this new realm, where effects from the rest of the galaxy become more pronounced, would be gradual and unexciting. But it’s proven to be far more complicated than anything researchers had imagined, with the spacecraft now encountering a strange region that scientists are struggling to make sense of.
“The models that have been thought to predict what should happen are all incorrect,” said physicist Stamatios Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is lead author of one of three new papers on Voyager appearing in Science on June 27. “We essentially have absolutely no reliable roadmap of what to expect at this point.”
The sun produces a plasma of charged particles called the solar wind, which get blown supersonically from its atmosphere at more than 1 million km/h. Some of these ions are thrown outward by as much as 10 percent the speed of light. These particles also carry the solar magnetic field.
Eventually, this wind is thought to hit the interstellar medium – a completely different flow of particles expelled from the deadly explosions of massive stars. The extremely energetic ions created in these bursts are known as galactic cosmic rays and they are mostly blocked from coming into the solar system by the solar wind. The galaxy also has its own magnetic field, which is thought to be at a significant angle to the sun’s field.
Researchers know that Voyager 1 entered the edge of the solar wind in 2003, when the spacecraft’s instruments indicated that particles around it were moving subsonically, having slowed down after traveling far from the sun. Then, about a year ago, everything got really quiet around the probe. Voyager 1’s instruments indicated at the solar wind suddenly dropped by a factor of 1,000, to the point where it was virtually undetectable. This transition happened extremely fast, taking roughly a few days.
At the same time, the measurements of galactic cosmic rays increased significantly, which would be “just as we expected if we were outside the solar wind,” said physicist Ed Stone of Caltech, Voyager’s project scientist and lead author of one of the Science papers. It looked almost as if Voyager 1 had left the sun’s influence.
So what’s the problem? Well, if the solar wind was completely gone, galactic cosmic rays should be streaming in from all directions. Instead, Voyager found them coming preferentially from one direction. Furthermore, even though the solar particles had dropped off, the probe hasn’t measured any real change in the magnetic fields around it. That’s hard to explain because the galaxy’s magnetic field is thought to be inclined 60 degrees from the sun’s field.
No one is entirely sure what’s going on.
“It’s a huge surprise,” said astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University, who was not involved in the work. While the new observations are fascinating, they are likely something that theorists will debate about for some time, she added.
“In some sense we have touched the intergalactic medium,” Opher said, “but we’re still inside the sun’s house.”
Extending this analogy, it’s almost as if Voyager thought it was going outside but instead found itself standing in the foyer of the sun’s home with an open door that allows wind to blow in from the galaxy. Not only were scientists not expecting this foyer to exist, they have no idea how long the probe will stay inside of it. Stone speculated that the probe could travel some months or years before it reaches interstellar space.
“But it could happen any day,” he added. “We don’t have a model to tell us that.” Even then, Stone said, Voyager would not have really left the solar system but merely the region where the solar wind dominates.
For his part, Krimigis didn’t even want to speculate on what Voyager might encounter next because theorists’ models have so far not worked extremely well.
“I’m convinced that nature is far more imaginative than we are,” he said.
Use the blog's search engine for more on Voyagers 1 and 2.
"Strategies to address questionable statistical practices."
Janet D. Stemwedel
June 27th, 2013
If you have not yet read all you want to read about the wrongdoing of social psychologist Diederik Stapel, you may be interested in reading the 2012 Tilburg Report (PDF) on the matter. The full title of the English translation is “Flawed science: the fraudulent research practices of social psychologist Diederik Stapel” (in Dutch, “Falende wetenschap: De fruaduleuze onderzoekspraktijken van social-psycholoog Diederik Stapel”), and it’s 104 pages long, which might make it beach reading for the right kind of person.
If you’re not quite up to the whole report, Error Statistics Philosophy has a nice discussion of some of the highlights. In that post, D. G. Mayo writes:
The authors of the Report say they never anticipated giving a laundry list of “undesirable conduct” by which researchers can flout pretty obvious requirements for the responsible practice of science. It was an accidental byproduct of the investigation of one case (Diederik Stapel, social psychology) that they walked into a culture of “verification bias”. Maybe that’s why I find it so telling. It’s as if they could scarcely believe their ears when people they interviewed “defended the serious and less serious violations of proper scientific method with the words: that is what I have learned in practice; everyone in my research environment does the same, and so does everyone we talk to at international conferences” (Report 48). …
I would place techniques for ‘verification bias’ under the general umbrella of techniques for squelching stringent criticism and repressing severe tests. These gambits make it so easy to find apparent support for one’s pet theory or hypotheses, as to count as no evidence at all (see some from their list ). Any field that regularly proceeds this way I would call a pseudoscience, or non-science, following Popper. “Observations or experiments can be accepted as supporting a theory (or a hypothesis, or a scientific assertion) only if these observations or experiments are severe tests of the theory.”
You’d imagine this would raise the stakes pretty significantly for the researcher who could be teetering on the edge of verification bias: fall off that cliff and what you’re doing is no longer worthy of the name scientific knowledge-building.
Psychology, after all, is one of those fields given a hard time by people in “hard sciences,” which are popularly reckoned to be more objective, more revealing of actual structures and mechanisms in the world — more science-y. Fair or not, this might mean that psychologist have something to prove about their hardheadedness as researchers, about the stringency of their methods. Some peer pressure within the field to live up to such standards would obviously be a good thing — and certainly, it would be a better thing for the scientific respectability of psychology than an “everyone is doing it” excuse for less stringent methods.
Plus, isn’t psychology a field whose practitioners should have a grip on the various cognitive biases to which we humans fall prey? Shouldn’t psychologists understand better than most the wisdom of putting structures in place (whether embodied in methodology or in social interactions) to counteract those cognitive biases?
Remember that part of Stapel’s M.O. was keeping current with the social psychology literature so he could formulate hypotheses that fit very comfortably with researchers’ expectations of how the phenomena they studied behaved. Then, fabricating the expected results for his “investigations” of these hypotheses, Stapel caught peer reviewers being credulous rather than appropriately skeptical.
Short of trying to reproduce the experiments Stapel described themselves, how could peer reviewers avoid being fooled? Mayo has a suggestion:
Rather than report on believability, researchers need to report the properties of the methods they used: What was their capacity to have identified, avoided, admitted verification bias? The role of probability here would not be to quantify the degree of confidence or believability in a hypothesis, given the background theory or most intuitively plausible paradigms, but rather to check how severely probed or well-tested a hypothesis is– whether the assessment is formal, quasi-formal or informal. Was a good job done in scrutinizing flaws…or a terrible one? Or was there just a bit of data massaging and cherry picking to support the desired conclusion? As a matter of routine, researchers should tell us.
I’m no social psychologist, but this strikes me as a good concrete step that could help peer reviewers make better evaluations — and that should help scientists who don’t want to fool themselves (let alone their scientific peers) to be clearer about what they really know and how well they really know it.
[Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist.]
Disney's film, The Lone Ranger, will be released next week and once again a couple of items hits the news: Tonto's tribe and what does "kemosabe" mean. The following article mostly deals with the word.
"What Do You Mean “Kemosabe,” Kemosabe?"
June 26th, 2013
Even if you’ve never heard or seen a single episode of Fran Striker’s early 20th-century creation The Lone Ranger—begun on the radio, continued in books and on television, and soon to hit the big screen—the term kemosabe is likely familiar to you. In the years since 1933, when the radio series premiered, the word has become ingrained in the American lexicon, finding its way into infamous jokes and kitschy songs. In one particularly Tonto-heavy trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, Johnny Depp as the faithful Native American sidekick says rather ponderously to Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger, “Justice is what I seek, kemosabe.”
But what, exactly, does kemosabe mean? And does the word have its origins in any indigenous language? Or is it purely a white-American butchering of Native American culture?
It’s complicated. The phrase has stumped scholars and Lone Ranger fans alike for years, and there appears to be no conclusive evidence as to its true definition or its roots. (Striker himself does not seem to have offered an explanation on the record during his lifetime.) It doesn’t help that in the original series, Tonto’s own backstory was left deliberately mysterious, and throughout the franchise, his tribal identification is mostly ambiguous. (On the radio series, he was reportedly described as a Potawatomi Indian, though that tribe did not live in the southwest, where the show is set.)
Still, there are plenty of theories to go around. The Yale Book of Quotations defines the word as “faithful friend or trusty scout,” and this is the most common interpretation. (In an episode of the TV show, Tonto tells the Lone Ranger that the word “mean trusty scout.”) A 1939 Saturday Evening Post article claimed that Striker’s letters to his children always opened with the phrase “Ta-i ke-mo sah-bee,” or, “Greetings, trusty scout.”And Striker’s widow told the Hartford Courant in 1977, “I think he interpreted ‘kemo sabe’ to mean ‘good friend’ or ‘good scout.’ ”
Where did Striker get this word? It’s not clear. The Yale Book of Quotations cites a boys’ camp in Mullet Lake, Mich., named Ke Mo Sah Bee, and on separate occasions Striker’s son and daughter each suggested this might be where the show got it from. (Jim Jewell, the original series’ director, is usually credited with finding the word by those who support this hypothesis. Jewell was from Michigan.) But their mother, who admitted that her memory was “very fuzzy” (she was raising four kids while her husband was getting the series under way), said that Striker “may have just coined it from his own head.” Or maybe not. A 1977 Smithsonian Magazine article by Lone Ranger aficionado Martha Kendall—at the time a Ph.D. student in anthropology with a concentration in American Indian languages—found a similarly “friendly” definition in a specific Native American language. Smithsonian curator and linguist Ives Goddard told her he had traced it to J.P. Harrington’s “The Ethnogeography of the Tewa Indians,” from 1916. That article includes a list of Tewa words used to denote other tribes and cultures; the word sabe is defined as “Apaches” and kema is defined as “friend.” Kendall suggests that this list could have been seen by Striker himself or a research assistant. At the time that the series was first developed, she says, “there was a variable glut of these Smithsonian volumes in used book shops, since they were distributed free to various politicians who clearly had no use for them.” There is another theory that gives the word an entirely different meaning. Noting that tonto in Spanish means “stupid” or “crazy,” some people have pointed out that kemosabe sounds a lot like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn’t understand.” (In Spanish-language versions of The Lone Ranger, Tonto is called Toro, Spanish for bull.) This suggests a whole different dynamic between the two characters. Is the Lone Ranger a racist who calls his partner an idiot? Is Tonto in turn being subversive when he addresses his white companion as an ignoramus?
The truth: probably neither. As Chadwick Allen explains in “Hero with Two Faces: The Lone Ranger as Treaty Discourse,” this interpretation has mostly been pushed by American linguists who want to “locate Tonto ‘appropriately’ in the Pueblo southwest,” and there isn’t much evidence for it. But the theory has plenty of proponents regardless. Native American writer Sherman Alexie, who is of Coeur D’Alene descent, has said that kemosabe means “idiot” in Apache. “They were calling each other ‘idiot’ all those years,” he told an interviewer in 1996, a few years after the publication of his story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. “It’s always going to be an antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people,” he added.
There’s one other theory of note, though it’s not as well known as the first two. Alan Shaterian of University of California, Berkeley told Kendall that the word could have its roots in the Yavapai language spoken in Arizona. Striker, Shaterian says, could have visited a reservation in the state and asked people there what their word was for “a white person,” or someone who dresses in white, like the Lone Ranger. According to Shaterian, a typical Yavapai speaker would answer with kinmasaba or kinmasabeh.
In the nearly 40 years since Kendall’s piece was published, no one seems to have come any closer to a conclusive account of the phrase’s origins or intended meaning within the Lone Ranger series. Kendall herself decided she preferred “the mystery to certainty,” and perhaps the word is indeed a bit more fun that way. On a 1969 episode of The Johnny Carson Show, Carson did a sketch in which he interviewed Jay Silverheels—who portrayed Tonto on the Lone Ranger TV series—in character, for a new job at NBC. “I work 30 years as faithful sidekick for kemosabe,” Silverheels tells Carson in the bit. “Hunt, fish, make food, sew clothes, sweep up, stay awake all night, listen for enemies for kemosabe. Risk life for kemosabe. Thirty lousy years.” When Carson wonders why Tonto’s former employer let him go, the once-faithful sidekick replies, “Him find out what kemosabe mean.”
Hogarth, part of Random House publishers, has announced an ambitious international project to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
7:00AM BST 27 Jun 2013
Hogarth, the Random House transatlantic fiction imprint, has today announced an international project that aims to bring Shakespeare to a wider contemporary audience. The project, titled The Hogarth Shakespeare, will ask bestselling novelists throughout the world to retell his work in a more accessible prose form.
So far, two authors have signed up. The novelist and BAFTA award winning screen-writer Jeanette Winterson OBEhas chosen The Winter's Tale, a play close to her heart: "All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years. This is a brilliant opportunity to work with it in its own right."
Anne Tyler will join Winterson on Hogarth’s new endeavour and has chosen The Taming of the Shrew. The Pulitzer prize winner said: "I don’t know which I’m looking forward to more: ‘Delving into the mysteries of shrewish Kate or finding out what all the other writers do with their Shakespeare characters.’"
Charles and Mary Lamb’s attempt in the 18th century to re-imagine the plays for a larger audience has been (and continues to be) enormously successful and popular with children. In 2007, Tales from Shakespeare was published both as a Penguin Classic and as a Collectable book illustrated by Joelle Joviet.
However, many feel that, by altering the form of Shakespeare’s plays, the complex poetic language will inevitably be lost. The accessibility of Shakespeare might be enhanced, but has an integral part of the experience of reading one of his plays been removed?
Popular adaptations for film and television have often made the decision to transport the plays into a more modern and familiar setting, and yet maintain the original dialogue. Both Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 Oscar-nominated film Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the popular televised adaptation of Hamlet, with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart, saw Shakespeare’s intended language delivered to a contemporary audience. Whereas the teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You, loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, went the other way and achieved similar success.
The Hogarth Shakespeare programme is set to launch in 2016 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Molly Stern, Senior Vice President (Crown/ Hogarth/ Broadway Books), said: "We all know there is no greater genius in all literature than the Bard. I can’t wait to see what alchemy will result from some of the most exciting writers of our own time applying their distinctive storytelling gifts, expertise, and perspective to reimagining his timeless works. I have no doubt new classics await us all."
What today’s online classes say about tomorrow’s college curriculum
June 26th, 2013
Shakespeare and Aristotle may no longer be the big men on campus, as more college students abandon the humanities in favor of the sciences. But nowhere does the decline of the core liberal arts curriculum seem more pronounced than in online courses, experts say.
Young Americans have been turning away from literature, philosophy, history and religion for some time, several recent studies show. This week, a national group of academics supported by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences delivered a report to Congress to raise awareness among lawmakers about the decline in humanities. “It’s almost as if a memo went out to students from their friends and families telling them not to study the humanities,” says Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University.
The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities nationwide halved to 7% of all degrees in 2010 from 14% in 1966, noted a report released this month by the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard College, “The Teachings of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College.” At Radcliffe and Harvard College, the percentage of students majoring in the humanities dropped to 20% last year from 36% in 1954, the report added. “In the other divisions of the university, students learn about the world as it is,” the report said. “In the rest of the humanities, they learn about how it was and how it might be.” (Grafton cautions that Harvard’s decline may not represent the national picture. “There’s huge local variation,” he says.)
For a picture of what the curriculum of tomorrow may look like, one need look no further than the online course catalog. Humanities enrollments are among the least popular of all online academic subjects. A 2011 paper, “Learning at a Distance,” published by the government’s National Center for Education Statistics estimated that only 14% of humanities majors took even a single online course. That proportion is smaller than in nearly all other academic disciplines, including computer sciences and education (27%), business (24%), general studies (23%), health care (22%) and engineering (16%).
Studying Russian literature doesn’t naturally lend itself to debate via instant messaging, email or webcam, experts say. “Math and science courses can be easily graded online,” says Alexandria Walton Radford, associate program director of postsecondary education at RTI International, a nonprofit research organization. Radford, who wrote the 2011 NCES report, says a typical English essay takes more time and discussion. “Some colleges are working out solutions to that with peers reading papers and generating feedback,” she says.
There are also financial reasons: Online computer science courses are generally regarded as an inexpensive and convenient path to entry into the job market. “There’s a big need for tech skills now over humanities,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, a management and consulting firm. Some 50% of all students today don’t believe they require an actual classroom, he says. Indeed, the number of online enrollments has nearly tripled, rising to 32% of total college enrollments in 2011 from 12% in 2002, according to a 2013 survey by Babson Survey Research Group.
But the humanities are important to the business world, academics say, for tasks ranging from a company’s efforts to expand successfully overseas to how it interacts with its customers, academics say. “It’s hard to exaggerate how bad Americans are at soft knowledge of other cultures,” says Princeton’s Grafton. The value of language skills, and the study of cultures cannot be overstated, he says. “I’ve always been struck by the way Japanese auto companies came to America and competed with U.S.-made cars,” Grafton says. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have not been overly strong in our ability to communicate with our allies.”
And, as online learning comes of age, some academics say more students will be more willing to discuss the virtues of Frederich Nietzsche with their professors online. “As the numbers increase, attitudes about online learning will also become more open,” says Claire Wladis, an associate professor of mathematics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York. “Non-traditional” students—those working full-time, or those with children—gravitate to online degrees and may be as likely to choose humanities as science, she says.
In the July/August issue of the Atlantic[see below], Joseph Epstein uses the release of Saul Friedlander’s book “Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt" to pose the larger question of whether Kafka is still relevant.
“Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them,” he observes, noting that “Kafka’s small body of work, which includes three uncompleted novels, some two dozen substantial short stories, an assemblage of parables and fragment-like shorter works, diaries, collections of letters (many to lovers whom he never married), and the famous ‘Letter to His Father,’” represents an achievement so insular that it “cannot be either explained or judged in the same way as other literary artists.” What this means, Epstein goes on, is that, in Kafka’s universe, “illogic becomes plausible, guilt goes unexplained, and brutal punishment is doled out for no known offense.” Let me offer a dissenting view: The guilt and punishment in Kafka’s writing are so pervasive because they are often that way in contemporary life. Kafka understood this, just as he understood that none of us, regardless of intentions, are ever wholly innocent. Just look at “The Trial”’s Josef K., both victim and collaborator, or poor Gregor Samsa, who, as “The Metamorphosis” begins, “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams” to find himself “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
I love “The Metamorphosis”; it’s one of my favorite works of literature, because of the way Kafka personalizes the alienation, making Gregor complicit in his fate. He becomes an insect, after all, because he is already an insect, scurrying from train to train, town to town, supporting a family that takes advantage of him, as we see once he is afflicted and they must care for themselves. Gregor’s disaffection is, in some sense, the disaffection of anyone who has ever been in his position — unthanked, taken advantage of, overworked — and yet, it is also his fault.
For me, this is the key lesson of Kafka’s writing, that we are all responsible for our own fates. It’s a starkly existential position that is also a quintessentially modern point-of-view.
Epstein makes a lot out of the narrowness of Kafka’s writing, suggesting that his work adds up to little more than “the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life.” I agree that his books are highly autobiographical (if by autobiographical, we mean that they trace the parameters of the writer’s inner life), but the miracle of them is that they manage to reach out, somehow, to connect to our isolation, to reflect emotions that emerge in all of us.
“My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life,” Jonathan Franzen notes in his essay “On Autobiographical Fiction.” “This conception I take from Kafka, who, although he was never transformed into an insect, and although he never had a piece of food (an apple from his family’s table!) lodged in his flesh and rotting there, devoted his whole life as a writer to describing his personal struggle with his family, with women, with moral law, with his Jewish heritage, with his Unconscious, with his sense of guilt, and with the modern world.”
Franzen gets it just right, the heart of Kafka’s project, which is to interpose that inner landscape on the outer world. Much has been made of the opening of his novel "Amerika" (or “The Missing Person”), in which a young man named Karl Rossmann arrives in New York harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty, its “arm with the sword now reached aloft.”
What do we make of such an image? Over the years, it’s been explained as a mistake (Kafka wrote about America without ever having been here) or a clue that we have entered the territory of a dream. For me, however, it’s more concrete and universal — a metaphor for Karl’s disassociation; in Kafka’s universe, even the land of opportunity comes armed with a sword.
There’s no doubt this can make for heavy sledding; Kafka is not, as Epstein argues, always (or even often) fun to read. But that suggests a misapprehension about why we read, or at least why I do; I’m not looking to be entertained. I think Epstein misses the boat on Kafka’s humor, which is subtle, pointed: There’s something bitterly comic about Josef K.’s never-ending slog through the legal bureaucracy, as there is about a man who wakes up as a bug.
More to the point, Epstein seems to expect some sort of logical explanation for a universe that is by its nature devoid of logic, which is how Kafka saw the world. “For a man who claimed to be under the lash of a tyrannical father,” he writes, “Kafka nevertheless lived at home until he was 31. He insisted that his job stifled him, yet he never left it until compelled to by illness. He strung women along — poor Felice Bauer, twice his fiancée over the course of several years — holding out promises of marriage on which he did not deliver.”
That this is true is beside the point, at least when it comes to Kafka’s work. His inability to get out from under his father, or his job, to deliver on his promises, is part of what makes him human, part of the enigma of his self. This, in turn, is what his writing reflects.
We are all of us conflicted, all of us trapped in situations we can’t escape, even (or especially) if others think we can. And Kafka remains our greatest chronicler of this ambivalence precisely because he understood it — and the way modernity offers little opportunity for it to be resolved.
"Is Franz Kafka Overrated?"
Critics have long tended to see him as a modernist master on par with Joyce, Proust, and Picasso. Let's reconsider that.
June 19th, 2013
Edmund Wilson claimed that the only book he could not read while eating his breakfast was by the Marquis de Sade. I, for different reasons, have been having a difficult time reading Franz Kafka with my morning tea and toast. So much torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set out against a background of utter hopelessness. Distinctly not a jolly way to start the day. Kafka doesn’t make for very comforting reading at bedtime, either.
Hypochondriac, insomniac, food faddist, cripplingly indecisive, terrified by life, obsessed with death, Franz Kafka turned, as best he was able, his neuroses into art. As a character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” says, Kafka was “Homo sapiens in his highest degree of self-torture.” Still, the consensus remains that Franz Kafka is a modern master—a master, more specifically, in the modernist tradition, housed in the same pantheon as Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Mallarmé, and other artists who have radically altered contemporary understanding of the world.
Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”
As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.” Whatever these precautions may have been, they were inadequate, for the works of Franz Kafka—apart perhaps only from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare—may be the most relentlessly interpreted, if not overinterpreted, in the modern world.
The September 7, 2012, issue of The Times Literary Supplement ran a review by Gabriel Josipovici of several recent books on Kafka. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedländer, is another strong entry in the derby. Friedländer is by trade not a literary critic but a historian. His affinity for Kafka is historical and personal. Like Kafka’s, his family, German-speaking and Jewish, originated in Prague. His father went to the same university Kafka did, though some 15 years later. As Kafka lost his three sisters, so did Friedländer lose his parents in Nazi camps.
Friedländer is well aware of the competing theories about the meaning of Kafka’s small body of work, which includes three uncompleted novels, some two dozen substantial short stories, an assemblage of parables and fragment-like shorter works, diaries, collections of letters (many to lovers whom he never married), and the famous Letter to His Father, which he never sent. Friedländer’s method in this short book is to weave back and forth between the life and the work in an attempt to explain Kafka’s significance. He does not doubt Kafka’s greatness, though he resists explaining in what, exactly, it resides.
His own view is that Kafka was “the poet of his own disorder.” Friedländer writes, “The issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.” Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, he appears to believe that Kafka was a repressed homosexual—that the shame and guilt Friedländer mentions in his subtitle were chiefly over Kafka’s hidden sexuality. He offers no clinching proof, and at one point goes so far as to say, “It is highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations.”
Yet in Kafka’s stories, Friedländer finds, “there is a secret to be uncovered, something that the protagonist attempts to hide. Doesn’t this … bring us back to Kafka’s constant efforts to hide his sexual leanings?” In the unending critical Easter-egg hunt for the secret meaning in Franz Kafka’s fiction, Friedländer has retrieved the gay egg.
At one point Friedländer remarks on Kafka’s interest in young boys. (Death not in Venice but in Prague?) At another he notes, “Kafka’s representation of women is grimacing at best.” At still another he mentions a youthful “homoerotic” interest in friends. In “A Country Doctor,” a wound in the side of a boy suppurating worms is, Friedländer agrees with another critic, symbolic of the vagina. Ah, we sleep tonight; criticism stands guard.
Kafka, the critic Jeremy Adler holds, is “less dazzling than Proust, less innovative than Joyce, [but his] vision is more stark, more painful, more obviously universal than that of his peers.” Kafka’s universality derives from his high level of generality. Places are not named; most characters go undescribed; landscapes, sere and menacing, appear as they might in nightmares. Joyce and Proust work from detail to generality; Kafka works from generality to detail, giving his fiction the feeling that something deeply significant is going on, if only we could grasp what precisely it is.
“The vicinity of literature and autobiography could hardly be closer than it is with Kafka,” Erich Heller wrote. “Indeed, it almost amounts to identity.” The broader lineaments of Kafka’s autobiography are well known. Taken together, they constitute a life of nearly unrelieved doubt and mental suffering.
From Kafka’s Letter to His Father, we know that Hermann Kafka was strong and oppressive, a man who left his son with a permanent feeling of inadequacy. We know of the drudgery of Kafka’s job as a lawyer at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague and the firsthand acquaintance it gave him with the hideous entanglements of bureaucracy, entanglements that now go by the name Kafkaesque. Perhaps most pertinent are his misfired love affairs. Kafka was engaged to two women, one of them twice, and never married. He died in 1924, at 40, of tuberculosis, without having quite lived except during those solitary nights that, in trancelike exaltation, he devoted to his writing. Before his death he instructed his stalwart friend Max Brod to destroy much of his work, but, against Kafka’s wishes, Brod chose not to do so, thereby becoming a minor hero of literature.
The crushing father figure comes in for a good workout in such Kafka stories as “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment.” Other stories present pure, unexplained angst. These are the stories whose characters are being severely punished for petty crimes (“In the Penal Colony”), or even for crimes they are unaware of having committed (The Trial). Conveying nightmares in sharp detail, these stories chronicle the unraveling of lives in which illogic becomes plausible, guilt goes unexplained, and brutal punishment is doled out for no known offense. Such is the art of Franz Kafka.
In his Kafka biography, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head, Louis Begley, one of the best interpreters of Kafka’s life, especially of his relationships with women, claims that Kafka “wrote about the human condition.” Erich Heller held that Kafka’s writing transcended “most realities of the age.” Neither man, though, tells quite how Kafka did these things.
Benjamin, Begley, Heller, Friedländer, and other critics who take Kafka’s greatness as self-evident agree that Kafka cannot be either explained or judged in the same way as other literary artists. Benjamin believed that “Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.”
“In Kafka’s fiction,” Friedländer writes, “the Truth remains inaccessible and is possibly nonexistent.” Begley, remarking on an object referred to as “Odradek” in a five-paragraph exercise of Kafka’s called “The Cares of a Family Man,” writes: “Some things cannot be explained.” Of “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka’s most famous story, Heller writes: “It defies any established intellectual order and familiar form of understanding, and thus arouses the kind of intellectual anxiety that greedily and compulsively reaches out for interpretations.” In his Times Literary Supplement review, Josipovici, noting that 100 years have passed since Kafka wrote his story “The Judgment,” adds: “We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be.”
Kafka, in other words, is given a pass on criticism. The argument is that he cannot finally be explained, but merely read, appreciated, and reread until his meaning, somehow, washes over you. But what if this meaning seems oddly skewed and in our day even outmoded, in the way great literature never is?
As Friedländer underscores, Kafka came into his maturity as a German-speaking Jew in anti-Semitic Prague—that is, a minority twice over—and the anti-Semitism was to worsen after World War I. Kafka began writing in the closing years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a time when Sigmund Freud emphasized the centrality of the sexual life in human development. Touching on the hothouse intellectual atmosphere of this time, Begley quotes the German critic Willy Haas: “I cannot imagine how any man can understand him at all who was not born in Prague in the period 1880 to 1890.”
And much, it is true, isn’t easily understood. For a man who claimed to be under the lash of a tyrannical father, Kafka nevertheless lived at home until he was 31. He insisted that his job stifled him, yet he never left it until compelled to by illness. He strung women along—poor Felice Bauer, twice his fiancée over the course of several years—holding out promises of marriage on which he did not deliver.
Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping they can be, are aesthetically unsatisfying, especially in their endings. Kafka himself did not find the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” his greatest story, satisfying, and it isn’t. Perhaps for the same reason, he was unable to complete his novels: dreams, especially nightmares, want for artistic endings. Another character in Singer’s “A Friend of Kafka” says of Kafka’s novel The Castle, “It’s too long for a dream. Allegories should be short.” Dour and doleful though Kafka’s fiction is, it is not entirely bereft of humor or comic touches in dark situations. Horses stare through windows into human habitations, an elderly bachelor is followed around his apartment by two bouncing balls—absurdity reigns amid terror. When he once read the first chapter of The Trial aloud for an audience, Kafka laughed at the situation in which he had placed his main character. But the comedy is not what one remembers in that novel or in any other of Kafka’s writings.
Kafka is credited with prophetic powers, because he predicted, through his novels The Trial and The Castle, the totalitarian regimes that arose after his death, especially that of the Soviet Union, with its arbitrary, insane, crushing—yes, Kafkaesque—bureaucratic apparatus for killing. But today the stories of fatherly tyranny carry too strong an odor of the moribund doctrine of Sigmund Freud—the Oedipus complex and all that. Kafka claimed to have been thinking about Freud’s doctrines when he wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgment,” about a father who sentences his son to death by drowning, causing the young man to jump off a bridge. The centrality of dreams in his stories also reflects Freud’s certainty about the significance of the dream life. The spread of Freudianism and the rise of Kafka’s reputation ran, not without good reason, in parallel. Kafka reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority.
All of which brings up the question of whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer. His greatest proponents, insisting that he is, cannot say why, and ask for a permanent moratorium on conventional criticism of his writing. His detractors, a distinct minority, feel that what he left us is the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life. In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.
Dr. Albert Einstein and his wife after their arrival in San Diego on the steamship Belgenland.
December 31st, 1930
The January 1st, 1931 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported...
Dr. Albert Einstein, distinguished German scientist whose intricate mathematical deductions about space and time sent fame scurrying to thump on the door of his modest little Berlin flat, arrived in Pasadena last night by motor from San Diego….
Setting foot for the first time on California soil, Dr. Einstein walked down the gangplank of the around-the-world steamship Belgenland at San Diego yesterday morning shortly after 9 o’clock. He was given a welcome that has seldom been equaled in San Diego History….
Although far from garrulous, the wizard of mathematical theory gave as generously of responses as was within his power to the barrage of questions laid down before him by his inquisitors, who sought him out on the Belgenland as the vessel steamed slowly into port. And he hinted strongly, too, in his remarks at the Balboa Park fete, that he had been overcome by the greeting accorded him.
But it was in his radio talk that seemed to pour forth from his heart a torrent of emotion he no longer could contain in the face of the ado the city was making over his presence. He spoke in his native German, which was translated by his wife, Frau Elsa.
“I am delightfully moved by the wonderful and hearty reception accorded me here in San Diego,” he said. “I am stepping today for the first time on California soil and it was a beautiful gesture to receive the greetings of a group of young people.”
Martin Gardiner Bernal March 10th, 1937 to June 9th, 2013
"Professor Martin Bernal, 'Black Athena' author, dies at 76"
June 14th, 2013
Martin Gardiner Bernal, professor emeritus of government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell and author of the widely read and debated "Black Athena” books on classical civilization, died June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
Bernal taught at Cornell from 1972 until his retirement in 2001. He began as an associate professor in the Department of Government and was named a full professor in 1988.
Bernal argued that Egypt, not Greece, was the root of ancient culture in his three-volume work “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.” Considered controversial by many, Bernal’s first volume, “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985" (1987) was followed by further research in “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” (1991) and “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence” (2006), and a volume in response to his critics, “Black Athena Writes Back” (2001).
The series was translated into several languages, became the subject of conferences, radio and television programs, and earned honors including a 1990 American Book Award for the first book and the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun’s 2004 Book of the Year for “Black Athena 2.”
His other books include “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976); and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of The Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Born March 10, 1937, in London to writer Margaret Gardiner and scientist J.D. Bernal, he was a 1957 graduate of Kings College, Cambridge; earned a Diploma of Chinese Language from Peking University in 1960, and was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963 and Harvard University in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University in 1966, remaining there as a fellow until his recruitment by Cornell. Adding an appointment in Near Eastern studies in 1984, he initiated new courses including the politics of scholarship.
He was known as a brilliant and lively friend, teacher and colleague; was well-traveled and learned languages wherever he went, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, the Bantu language Chichewa, Vietnamese and Japanese.
"Martin Bernal obituary"
Scholar of Chinese history and politics whose most controversial work, Black Athena, explored the origins of ancient Greece
June 21st, 2013
Martin Bernal, who has died aged 76, was a scholar of China and modern politics, but his contentious work on ancient Greece brought him most to the public eye. He maintained that the cultural roots of Greek civilisation derived not just from Indo-Europeans invading from the north, but substantially, as ancient authors affirmed, from Egypt, the Phoenician cities of the eastern Mediterranean and west Asia.
In place of what he saw as the racist "Aryan" theory of Greek origins prevalent from the early 19th century, he proposed a "revised ancient model" that accepted some Indo-European input, but held that about half the linguistic and mythic components of Hellenic culture came from African and Asiatic introductions since the early second millennium BC. The trilogy in which he put forward this argument, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, provoked great academic controversy. He did not foresee what one commentator called "the firestorm that would break upon his head".
Volume I (1987), The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985, examined mainstream scholarship on Mediterranean history from the bronze age to the classical period. It received mixed reviews but generated widespread interest and was translated into nine languages. Less editorially polished, Volume II (1991) mixed interpretation of archaeological materials with analysis of myths, to support his historical reconstruction of trans-Mediterranean influences and argue that the "orientalising" influence on Greece began a millennium earlier than generally thought.
Scholarly reviews in the west were almost entirely negative, and opinion was sharply divided. Some classicists considered Bernal a serious scholar who had made a considerable, if flawed, contribution; others treated him as an academic fraud.
Black Athena Revisited (1996), edited by Mary Lefkowitz and GM Rogers, brought together hostile contributions by scholars from a range of disciplines. Among their main objections were alleged naivety in Bernal's readings of myth and ancient literary texts, abusive generalisations in his treatment of ancient and modern authors, unconventional etymological analysis and selective presentation of evidence.
Bernal's detailed responses were collected in Black Athena Writes Back (2001). While admitting secondary errors and revising his positions accordingly, he stuck to his central argument of the key role of Egyptian and Phoenician immigrants in laying early foundations for classical Greek civilisation.
Volume III (2006) presented evidence from comparative linguistics to support that case. The most technical instalment of the trilogy, focusing on ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages as well as Greek, it was ignored by scholarly journals. Nonetheless, two recent edited collections, Black Athena Comes of Age and African Athena: New Agendas, both published in 2011, express critical appreciation for Bernal's contributions to raising key issues for scholarly consideration.
Near the end of his life, he summed up what he believed to be the standard assessment of his work's value among those who took him seriously: that his analysis of the modern historiography was fairly solid, his reconstructions based on archaeology and comparative mythology dubious and his linguistic analyses impossible. His own assessment was rather the opposite: he considered his linguistic work his most solid contribution and his historiographical analyses from the 1980s oversimplified.
Born in London, Bernal grew up there in a left-leaning milieu, on familiar terms with prominent figures in the arts, sciences and politics. His mother was the writer Margaret Gardiner, and his father the physicist JD Bernal. The sole child of their longstanding relationship, Martin studied at Dartington Hall school, Devon, undertook two years of national service and worked in Malawi for a family trust.
In 1957, he embarked on an oriental studies degree at King's College, Cambridge. He hoped Maoist China might constitute an alternative to Stalinism and capitalism. A year abroad in 1960-61 polishing his Chinese at Beijing University, where he was deemed to have a "bad attitude", acquainted him with the regime's Stalinist features, while cementing his lifelong engagement with Chinese culture and history.
The Cambridge professor of Chinese EG Pulleyblank was conducting innovative research into historical linguistics that proved an inspiration for Bernal later on. He gained first-class honours in 1961 and married his fellow student Judy Pace. Their daughter was born in 1963 in the US, where Bernal spent successive years as a graduate student at Berkeley and Harvard. Twin sons were born in Cambridge 18 months later.
A King's fellowship followed, and he received his PhD, on early Chinese socialism, in 1966.
Bernal was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. Extended visits to Cambodia in 1967, to Cambodia and both parts of Vietnam in 1971, and to North Vietnam in 1974, put him in personal touch with people in those countries.
Prominent articles on Chinese politics in the New York Review of Books brought him to attention in the US just as President Richard Nixon was making diplomatic overtures to the People's Republic and withdrawing troops from Indochina. In 1972 Bernal was appointed associate professor in the department of government at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, on terms that allowed him to spend substantial amounts of time in Britain, close to his children, as his first marriage had come to an end.
In 1976, he met Leslie Miller, a professor (and later provost) at Wells College, near Cornell, whom he married. They had a son in 1979, and Leslie had a son from her previous marriage. The family moved regularly between Ithaca and Cambridge over the following decades.
Bernal's first book, Chinese Socialism to 1907, appeared in 1976, but then his research interests increasingly shifted to antiquity. From his grandfather, the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, Bernal had gained an enduring engagement with the ancient Mediterranean; that and fascination with his Jewish heritage gave impetus to Black Athena, the project that most allowed him to connect prose and passion. It brought him an adjunct professorship in the department of Near Eastern studies in 1984. He became full professor at Cornell in 1988 and retired as emeritus in 2001.
Bernal took strong public stands against the Iraq war, in the US and in Britain. His broad knowledge, wit and good humour made him a brilliant conversationalist. He was a warm and generous friend.
In retirement he led Cambridge University tours to China. He treated language learning as both a duty and a pleasure: in addition to fluency in French and Chinese, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Italian, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chichewa (spoken in southern Africa) and several ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages.
"Martin Bernal, ‘Black Athena’ Scholar, Dies at 76"
June 22nd, 2013
The New York Times
Martin Bernal, whose three-volume work “Black Athena” ignited an academic debate by arguing that the African and Semitic lineage of Western civilization had been scrubbed from the record of ancient Greece by 18th- and 19th-century historians steeped in the racism of their times, died on June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
The cause was complications of myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder, said his wife, Leslie Miller-Bernal.
“Black Athena” opened a new front in the warfare over cultural diversity already raging on American campuses in the 1980s and ’90s. The first volume, published in 1987 — the same year as “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom’s attack on efforts to diversify the academic canon — made Mr. Bernal a hero among Afrocentrists, a pariah among conservative scholars and the star witness at dozens of sometimes raucous academic panel discussions about how to teach the foundational ideas of Western culture.
Mr. Bernal, a British-born and Cambridge-educated polymath who taught Chinese political history at Cornell from 1972 until 2001, spent a fair amount of time on those panels explaining what his work did not mean to imply. He did not claim that Greek culture had its prime origins in Africa, as some news media reports described his thesis. He said only that the debt Greek culture owed to Africa and the Middle East had been lost to history.
His thesis was this: For centuries, European historians of classical Greece had hewed closely to the origin story suggested by Plato, Herodotus and Aeschylus, whose writings acknowledged the Greek debt to Egyptian and Semitic (or Phoenician) forebears.
But in the 19th century, he asserted, with the rise of new strains of racism and anti-Semitism along with nationalism and colonialism in Europe, historians expunged Egyptians and Phoenicians from the story. The precursors of Greek, and thus European, culture were seen instead as white Indo-European invaders from the north.
In the first volume of “Black Athena,” which carried the forbidding double subtitle “The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece — 1785-1985,” Mr. Bernal described his trek through the fields of classical Greek literature, mythology, archaeology, linguistics, sociology, the history of ideas and ancient Hebrew texts to formulate his theory of history gone awry (though he did not claim expertise in all these subjects).
The scholarly purpose of his work, he wrote in the introduction, was “to open up new areas of research to women and men with far better qualifications than I have,” adding, “The political purpose of ‘Black Athena,’ is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.”
He published “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” in 1991, and followed it in 2006 with “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence.”
Another book, “Black Athena Writes Back,” published in 2001, was a response to his critics, who were alarmed enough by Mr. Bernal’s work to publish a collection of rebuttals in 1996, “Black Athena Revisited.”
One critic derided Mr. Bernal’s thesis as evidence of “a whirling confusion of half-digested reading.” Some were more conciliatory. J. Ray, a British Egyptologist, wrote, “It may not be possible to agree with Mr. Bernal, but one is the poorer for not having spent time in his company.”
Stanley Burstein, a professor emeritus of ancient Greek history at California State University, Los Angeles, said Mr. Bernal’s historiography — his history of history-writing on ancient Greece — was flawed but valuable. “Nobody had to be told that Greece was deeply influenced by Egypt and the Phoenicians, or that 19th-century history included a lot of racial prejudice,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But then, nobody had put it all together that way before.”
The specific evidence cited in his books was often doubtful, Professor Burstein added, but “he succeeded in putting the question of the origins of Greek civilization back on the table.”
Martin Gardiner Bernal was born on March 10, 1937, in London to John Desmond Bernal, a prominent British scientist and radical political activist, and Margaret Gardiner, a writer. His parents never married, a fact their son asserted with some pride in interviews.
“My father was a communist and I was illegitimate,” he said in 1996. “I was always expected to be radical because my father was.”
His grandfather Alan Gardiner was a distinguished Egyptologist.
Mr. Bernal graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, in 1957, earned a diploma of Chinese language from Peking University in 1960 and did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963 and Harvard in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge in 1966 and remained there as a fellow until he was recruited by Cornell.
His other books, which also focused on the theme of intercultural borrowing, were “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976) and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of the Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Besides his wife, he is survived by his sons, William, Paul and Patrick; a daughter, Sophie; a stepson, Adam; a half-sister, Jane Bernal; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Bernal was asked in 1993 if his thesis in “Black Athena” was “anti-European.” He replied: “My enemy is not Europe, it’s purity — the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture. I believe that the civilization of Greece is so attractive precisely because of those mixtures.”
Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization
ISBN-10: 0813512778 ISBN-13: 978-0813512778
Review by John R. Lenz...
Not since the Old Testament has a book about the second millenium B.C.E. generated as much controversy as Black Athena. The second volume of this projected four-volume work arouses equal degrees of awe and skepticism.
In Black Athena, Martin Bernal attempts to derive Greek civilization and language from Egypt and the Semitic Near East. Volume 1 (1987) argues that Western scholarship, operating under an "Aryan (i.e. Indo-European) Model," has excluded such contributions. Attributing this to racist impulses, Bernal countered (in kind) that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. His work thus complements the wider phenomenon of Afrocentrism.
More know the book's title than its arguments. Black Athena, volume 2 is extremely heavy going and problematic. Informative and generally reasonable in tone, its scope and ambition put the work of most scholars to shame. Even hoary antiquarians will learn things, and other dedicated readers will be led into the fascinating alleyways of Aegean (and Chinese) prehistory. Everyone, however, should read this work with extreme caution.
So radical is Bernal's ambition that much in the book eludes proof. Etymology--the heart of his case--is a notoriously slippery area. Bernal proposes many Egyptian or Semitic roots for Greek words, including such central concepts as psyche (soul) and hybris (pride). He gives some striking examples. Some interesting and some obscure aspects of Greek names and myths are illuminated. However, the fits, as he honestly admits, are usually loose ones, based on a grab-bag of roots that look or sound alike. Compelling as all this potentially is, there is just too much piling on of weak cases and no real method.
Much of the archaeology is, likewise, awesomely bold but hard to swallow. Bernal wishes to weave a complex web of populations and cultural borrowings in the Aegean Bronze Age. Such questions have long been the stuff of archaeology; the "Pax Aegyptiaca" is no new idea. But Bernal rightly resurrects many examples that have been minimized or overlooked from a Hellenocentric perspective. This is important. How many universities even offer courses on the ancient Near East and Egypt? How often do we hear Egyptian art unfairly disparaged by comparison with Greek? However, Bernal's blunt reconstructions go much further than warranted. In fact he rejects a model of multiculturalism in favor of a scenario of widespread Egyptian colonization and domination. For example, reshuffling myth-history, he alleges Egyptian settlement of Bronze Age Crete and Greece c. 1730 B.C.E.
Bernal's method is a misplaced materialism. He traces Chinese political theory (the ruler's "Mandate from Heaven") to a Greek volcanic cataclysm: "China today still bears the marks of the Thera eruption" (now dated c. 1628 B.C.E.). (Moses's parting of the seas and Plato's myth of Atlantis he indirectly connects with the same event.) Did atmospheric disturbances from Krakatoa's eruption really "have an impact on the development of Impressionism"? If you like such causal fancies, you will love the dense historical drama/espionage of Black Athena.
Aside from numerous questions of detail, two major problems flaw the core of the author's desire to erect a new paradigm. How far does he explain Greek culture, and does he do justice to the interaction of different cultures and to the cause of multiculturalism itself?
Frustrated with a sacred-cow Classicism, Bernal (the grandson of the Egyptologist A. Gardiner), only attacks Classical Greece at some remove: he combs the Aegean Bronze Age, c. 3000 to 1150 B.C.E., in order to derive Greek culture (a vast animal in time, space, and thought) from Near Eastern ones of that time. But from c. 1150 to 750 B.C.E. Greece experienced a Dark Age. Deriving the succeeding Greek city-state culture from the earlier Mycenaean palace civilization (whatever its origins) is problematic. Bernal's solution involves idiosyncratic redatings, e.g. placing the introduction of the Greek alphabet (unattested before 775 B.C.E. or later) between 1800 and 1400 B.C.E. and the poet Hesiod in the tenth century. These heavy-handed moves neither sufficiently bridge the divide of the Dark Age, nor answer the many difficult and subtle questions about the development of Greek civilization both from within and without.
There is a more serious, general objection. Suppose (as the author doesn't) that everything in the book were true: Egyptian settlement of Greece, Greek borrowings of language and ideas (e.g. Plato's) from Egypt. What would this explain? How far, for example, do we get in understanding Virgil by citing all of that great poet's borrowings from Homer? Wouldn't anything Plato wrote, short of taking dictation from Egyptian priests, bear his own stamp (and what about Socrates, who hardly left Athens)? In short, even if all of Bronze Age Greece were settled by Egyptians, we would still, immediately, have to say that the Egyptians in Greece were different from the Egyptians in Egypt. Glossing over deep questions of cultural change and identity, appropriating pieces here and there for one's own chosen peoples, is dangerous both politically and intellectually.
Bernal reminds us, and takes pride in demonstrating, that scholarship and politics (or ideology) can never be separated. His gadfly intent, "to lessen European cultural arrogance" and "to make conventionality have its cost," is most admirable (if itself somewhat conventional). But his own appeal to be faithful to the ancient traditions is rather disingenuous, since his "Revised Ancient Model" selects, rejects, and interprets from varied sources just as any historian must do.
Exposing others' preconceptions gives a false sense of security, when one remains blind to one's own. A theme of volume 1 was that we invent our ancestors (there, the ancient Greeks). Bernal answers by redefining the ancestors. Thus, like many revolutionaries, he does not condemn the system (namely the appropriation of the past for political purposes), but attempts to make it his own. Are black paradigmatic ancestors better (on principle) than European ones? Does a pharaoh in a black power pose really help the cause of Afro-American humanism (see Free Inquiry, Spring 1990) by replacing one elitism with another?
In my opinion, this trend does no service even to the intended cause. Deriving one culture from another (whether Europe from Greece or, in turn, Greece from Egypt) is not multiculturalism, but uniculturalism. (A strict Afrocentrism only takes Eurocentrism one step back, by maintaining, even requiring, a glorified view of the Greeks.) True multiculturalism recognizes the merits (and faults) of all peoples and cultures, and judges civilizations by other than their highest monuments. Wouldn't the Egyptian treatment of minorities be of concern to an Afrocentric perspective? Shouldn't the message be, you don't need the greatest or most powerful conquering ancestors to be worthy of human respect (today or in history)? Shouldn't a "politically correct" stance take some interest in the political and social systems of Egypt and Greece? We might ask, "How did the pharaohs treat their subjects?" or "Did Plato have totalitarian tendencies?"
Black Athena deserves respect for its broad ambition and inclusiveness. Terribly important in its aims, it remains highly problematic in methods and results, opening up new vistas rather than settling them. All should, while criticizing, widen their interests and sympathies. In a country that professes to live by ancient texts it knows shockingly little of, it is good to see the past taken seriously. But readers should approach this book in the same spirit of scholarly uncertainty in which, at its best, it is written. Martin Bernal [Wikipedia]
Annus mirabilis-1905 March is a time of transition winter and spring commence their struggle between moments of ice and mud a robin appears heralding the inevitable life stumbling from its slumber it was in such a period of change in 1905 that the House of Physics would see its Newtonian axioms of an ordered universe collapse into a new frontier where the divisions of time and space matter and energy were to blend as rain and wind in a storm that broke loose within the mind of Albert Einstein where Brownian motion danced seen and unseen, a random walk that became his papers marching through science reshaping the very fabric of the universe we have come to know we all share a common ancestor a star long lost in the eons of memory and yet in that commonality nature demands a permutation a perchance genetic roll of the dice which births a new vision lifting us temporarily from the mystery exposing some of the roots to our existence only to raise a plethora of more questions as did the papers of Einstein in 1905