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A chair of astrology at Harvard?

Is the strange interstellar object that has been ,named 'Oumuamua' perhaps an alien artifact? Apparently this idea is being considered by Professor Loeb, chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University. In this morning's Today programme one of the presenters, Nick Robinson, introduced Loeb as chair of the department of astrology. I don't know if this is an indication of how seriously we are supposed to take the idea.

'Informer' on BBC1: 'Dirty Old Town'

I found the rendition of 'Dirty Old Town' on BBC1's 'Informer' particularly attractive but I couldn't see anything in the credits to show where they got it. I spent much of a day learning how to extract and edit the sound track from the programme (an interesting and probably useful exercise) but eventually I located what seems to be the source on Youtube, sung by Esther Ofarim. If you've looked for it yourself you can find it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMT6WaSEy5U

There are other versions of the song by the same singer, Esther Ofarim, on Youtube but I preferred this one.

Book review: The Dead, by James Joyce

,The Dead is the final story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, published in 1914. At almost 1600 words it is long enough to be called a novella, but that is not the only reason I'm reviewing it on its own; its richness, depth, and complexity are characteristic of a novel rather than a short story and that is how I think it should be judged.

The central characters are Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, who attend a Christmas party given annually by Gabriel's aunts, Julia and Kate, and their neice Mary Jane, who lives with them. Gabriel arrives late at the party and we see events largely through his eyes, as he interacts, sometimes awkwardly, with other people. A friend who is an ardent Irish nationalist twits him about what she thinks is his sympathy for British influence on Ireland; he is stung and reacts badly to this.

When the party breaks up Gabriel and his wife go to a nearby hotel for the night because it is snowing. Gabriel is anticipating a romantic and passionate evening, but matters take a strange turn. Gretta has been in a abstracted mood since overhearing a song that was sung at the party, and in answer to Gabriel's questioning she tells him it used to be sung by Michael Furey, a young man she had been in love with in her youth in the country. He had been in poor health and had come to see her in the rain one night when she was about to leave for Dublin. He died at seventeen and she believed it was his coming to see her in the rain that night that caused his death.

After telling Gabriel this, Gretta cries and then falls asleep. Gabriel lies awake,reflecting on what he has experienced during the evening. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


I don't remember when I first read The Dead but it's a piece of writing, especially its final paragraph, that I've never been able to get out of my mind, and I've reread it periodically since then. Wikipedia tells me I'm not alone. Critics have described it as 'just about the finest short story in the English language' (Dan Berry), 'one of the greatest short stories ever written' (T.S. Eliot), and 'that magnificent short novel of tenderness and passion…' (Daniel R. Schwarz). I concur. I don't think Joyce ever wrote anything better than this, not excluding Ulysses.

New light on religion in the USA

The picture many of us have of the USA as largely dominated by religion is based on the fact that most U.S. adults, unlike those in Western Europe, describe themselves as belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination. Others say they have no formal religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, but exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. All these conventional descriptive categories are potentially misleading and conceal a lot of discrepant beliefs, so that reading the results of surveys of religious attitudes often leaves one with the impression that much that is important is being left out.

In this new survey by the Pew Research Center the whole question is treated in a refreshingly different way that makes it enjoyable to read as well as providing many new insights. Although this is a serious research project it is presented in an accessible and indeed almost light-hearted style, as exemplified by tbe names of the categories it uses to describe the respondents to the survey. There are seven groups 'based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives'. The names, in descending order of belief and devoutness, are Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular.

These somewhat unconventional categories are more informative than those used by most researchers. For example, they go a good way towards classifying the large number of people who now reject formal religion (often called 'nones' in other surveys) while still identifying themselves as 'spiritual'. Here the term is not left undefined and vague, as it often is, but is characterised in terms of belief in specific 'New Age' ideas such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and the inherence of spiritual energy in trees, crystals, or other physical objects.

Nevertheless the conventional religious groupings are not ignored totally; a section at the end of the overview looks at how the different religious traditions (Jews, Catholics and so on) are distributed amont the seven categories used here.

The seven-fold scheme allows for finer distinctions than is often the case. For example, the Solidly Secular and the Religion Resisters are quite similar in their rejection of formal religion and contain similar numbers of agnostics (one-fifth). But 'Religion Resisters are more likely than the Solidly Secular to describe their religion as "nothing in particular" (45% vs. 23%), while the Solidly Secular are more likely than Religion Resisters to describe themselves as atheists (31% vs. 6%)'. Incidentally, the Solidly Secular group is the only one to be made up mostly of men (two-thirds).

Although the research is now complete you can still answer the questionnaire on line and discover your own category. I thought the questions were generally well chosen and clear; there were just a few places where I felt that any answer I gave might be misleading, but I didn't disagree with the category assignment I received.

All in all, I think this review is probably the most informative and interesting, as well as the most readable without sacrifice of scientific rigour, that I've encountered in this area. Its only limitation is that it is confined to religion in the USA. I wish a survey of similar quality could be carried out in Britain.



Book review: Limpieza de Sangre [in Spanish], by Arturo Perez-Reverte

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This is the second novel in the series describing the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune and hired assassin. We meet again with most of the characters who appeared in the first novel, El Capitán Alatriste, including his young page, Iñigo Balboa, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, who has an important role in this book. There is also a new character, Angélica de Alquézar, a young girl who fascinates Iñigo and is destined to have a major impact on his life in later years.

The plot is triggered by Quevedo's request to Alatriste for help in rescuing a girl who has been forced to enter a convent. Iñigo climbs into the convent and opens a door to Quevedo, Alatriste, and the girl's family members, but they are caught in a trap and Alatriste and Quevedo barely escape with their lives. Meanwhile Iñigo, who has disobeyed Alatriste's instruction to return home, is captured by Alatriste's old enemy, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who delivers him to the Inquisition.

Quite a lot of the book is taken up with Iñigo's experiences at the hands of the Inquisition. These are suitably horrific, although luckily he is not tortured on the rack because he has not quite attained the age of fourteen. (The Inqusition's rules did not allow torture of children below this age.)

The question of 'purity of blood' which gives the book its title, relates to people whose forebears had been 'conversos' (Jewish converts to Christianity) and who were suspected of backsliding. If convicted of this crime they were liable to execution by burning. The central event in the novel is an 'Auto de Fe', which is staged in Madrid with the King and Queen in attendance. Iñigo is one of the accused, alleged to have taken part in Jewish rituals, and is now awaiting sentence.

As usual, there is plenty of drama and sword-play, which on one occasion takes on a near-farcical character, when Alatriste breaks into the house of Luis de Alquézar, Angélica's powerful uncle and guardian, intending to terrify him into getting Iñigo released. But Angélica comes on the scene and attacks Alatriste savagely, scratching him and biting his arm.

There is a lot of local colour, with depictions of seventeenth-century Madrid low life. Sometimes the details of this may be obscure to readers who lack some background information. For example, Chapter III describes Iñigo's encounter with Angélica in the 'Acero' district of Madrid. This was a place where water containing iron was drunk for medicinal purposes ('acero' = 'steel'), but in the seventeenth century 'tomar el acero' ('to take the steel'—compare 'to take the waters') could also refer to the making of romantic assignations.

As in the previous book, Iñigo includes a good few verse quotations, mostly from Quevedo, in his story, along with political reflections on the sorry state of decadent Spain. Fortunately these don't hold up the action too much. The principal characters, Alatriste and Iñigo, continue to develop in a convincing manner.

The final episode in the book has Alatriste encountering Malatesta, with whom he had fought a few days previously, now lying in bed seriously injured. Alatriste wants to kill him but can't bring himself to do so while the man is defenceless. And he is forced to recognise that he and Malatesta have more in common than he likes to admit.

Book review: Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich

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In 2003 Stephen Oppenheimer's book Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, presented a popular but detailed account of the way that genetics was beginning to supplement, and sometimes contradict, archaeological evidence for how humans had populated the world after their exit from Africa. This information was based on mitochondrial DNA and on the sex chromosomes, Y for the male line and X for the female line. The new insights into human evolution that Oppenheimer described were certainly fascinating, but the whole scene has been radically transformed within the last decade. Two technological developments have brought this about. First, sequencing of the whole genome has become much faster and cheaper, so that it can be done on an 'industrial' scale. Second, it is now possible to extract DNA from much older bones than was previously thought to be possible.

The first, and most dramatic, development in the application of genome sequencing to archaeology was Svante Pääbo's sequencing oeanderthal genome in 2009, which showed that there had been interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Reich started working with Pääbo in 2007, and in 2013 Pääbo helped him to set up the first laboratory in the USA for the large-scale production of ancient genomes. Similar work is beginning to be carried out in other countries as well.

In this book Reich presents an overview of what has been discovered so far. He emphasises that this cannot be a definitive description; new discoveries are being made continually and much of what he says here will inevitably have to be modified or even contradicted later. Still, enough has been achieved, he insists, to produce a radical transformation in our ideas about prehistory. 'The ancient DNA revolution is rapidly disrupting our assumptions about the past.' This is the first book to provide a popular account of what has been discovered so far.

The central fact to emerge is that it is no use looking at the genetics of people alive today to infer where they come from or what happened in the past. Study of ancient DNA has shown, time and again, that earlier people were much more mobile than many scholars had supposed. Large migrations have occurred repeatedly on a worldwide scale and there has been a vast amount of interbreeding. So the metaphor of an evolutionary tree is misleading; what we have is more like a network.

The book is in three parts. Part I is about interbreeding between modern humans and other species—mainly the Neanderthals but also the Denisovans and other now extinct species. Part II looks at the evolution of modern humans in five regions of the world: Europe, India, America, East Asia, and Africa. Part III is more 'political' and considers the relevance of this work to modern life and ideas of identity.

Part I is mostly a recapitulation of Pääbo's work and adds little to what readers of Neanderthal Man will know already. However, Reich has an interesting discussion of the idea of a retrograde migration from Eurasia to Africa as the source of modern humans.

It is generally supposed that modern humans evolved in Africa from African Homo erectus. But Homo erectus had moved out of Africa and colonised much of the Old World long before this, and it is possible that the ancestral population that gave rise to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans actually lived in Eurasia (pp.68–71). 'In this scenario, there was later migration back from Eurasia to Africa, providing the primary founders of the population that later evolved into modern humans.' The advantage of this idea is that it requires one less major migration between Africa and Eurasia. At present it is speculative, but it would fit with the discovery of skeletons of 'Homo antecessor' at Atapuerco, in Spain, dated to about a million years ago.

Whatever explains these patterns, it is clear that we have much more to learn. The period before fifty thousand years ago was a busy time in Eurasia, with mulltiple human populations arriving from Africa beginning at least 1.8 million years ago.


Part II, or at least its first two chapters, was for me the most interesting part of the book. For Europe, a very important event was the westward spread into central Europe of the Yamnaya, people from the steppes of Central Asia, about five thousand years ago. The existing population at the time was mainly derived from farmers who had themselves arrived from the Near East, largely replacing the hunter–gatherers who preceded them.

The Yamnaya, themselves of mixed ancestry, are credited with the introduction of Indo-European languages into Europe, along with Corded Ware pottery. The idea that migration was responsible for these changes had been proposed in the 1920s but fell out of favour after the Second World War as a reaction to the abuse of archaeology by the Nazis. Reich is clear that the genetic evidence makes the idea inescapable.

Our analysis of DNA from the Yamana…showed that they harbored a combination of ancestries that did not previously exist in central Europe. The Yamnaya were the missing ingredient that needed to be added to European farmers and hunter–gatherers to produce populations with the mixture of ancestries observed in Europe today. Our ancient DNA data also allowed us to learn how the Yamnaya themselves had formed from earlier [Armenian and Iranian] populations. ,/blockquote>

The Yamnaya also spread east, into India, again bringing Indo-European languages as well as the religious ideas we find in the Rig Veda. The genetic evidence for this agrees with what many Western scholars have believed for a long time. The end result is that India contains a mixture, in varying proportions, of two highly divergent populations. But expressing this in scientific terms required careful handling when Reich collaborated with two Indian researchers. They objected on political grounds to the proposed term 'West Eurasians' and to the suggestion that immigration had brought outside ideas into India. They even suggested that there could have been an Indian migration in the opposite direction, to the Near East and Europe. Eventually the issue was fudged, with no reference being made to migrations.

I found the remaining chapters in Part II less satisfactory, probably because less work has been done on America, East Asia, and Africa, so what we get is a number of facts but not much of a coherent story to tie them together. But things are changing fast and if there is a subsequent edition of the book or a sequel, no doubt we will get a more comprehensive picture. In relation to Africa, Reich remarks that most researchers take little interest in what happened after the emigration of modern humans about 50 000 years ago (more recently than the 85,000 cited by Oppenheimer in 2003), yet there is a huge amount to be studied.

Research of this kind cannot be separated from social and political questions, as Reich found in India. It has also cropped up in the USA, with regard to archaeologists' alleged interference with the graves of ancient Native Americans. In Part III Reich discusses these questions with sensitivity and also considers the relevance of his research to 'race'. I found this section to be somewhat peripheral to the main part of the book.