Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.


Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant

Trumbo by Bruce Cook


The book that inspired the 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston, this biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was written in 1977 shortly after his death, and republished recently to include photos from the recent film.  The topic of blacklisting, McCarthy and the culture of the US at the time is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately I find this book to only sporadically show that off.

The majority of the book is about his pre-blacklist career.  It’s not uninteresting – growing up in a religious family, working in an industrial bakery to pay the bills while pursuing his writing career, finally breaking into Hollywood through reviews, short stories and novels.  Unfortunately I haven’t read them myself, but his novels seem to have been well received satire, hinting at an alternative career in the mould of Sinclair Lewis.  Scriptwriting paid the bills, however, and that was to be the main focus of Dalton Trumbo’s work.

Throughout this early career, we see Trumbo’s political views develop through his experience at the bakery, union activity, and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.  Trumbo would eventually join the Communist Party – with solidarity to colleagues being a major factor.  This was radical at the time, but not as unusual as it would become – the Soviet Union were war time allies and it had over 100,000 members at its peak.

After the war the clampdown on communism began, and after being named as a party member pressure was put on Trumbo to reveal other members and testify on communist propaganda in Hollywood.  Trumbo (and others) stayed silent and fought this pressure on the grounds of the first amendment, but were convicted of Contempt of Congress.  After a year in jail, Trumbo moved to Mexico and resumed writing under pseudonyms and through proxies.  During this time, he won an Oscar for writing The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, and also wrote the award winning film Roman Holiday.

Finally in 1960, he was openly credited on the films Spartacus and Exodus – breaking the blacklist and showing the threats of reprisals to be hollow.  He went on to write many more films, including Executive Action and Papillon, as well as directing an adaption of his novel Johnny Got His Gun.  His health decline and he died in 1976.

The book covers this later period with plenty of interviews, both with Trumbo and with his contemporaries, and discussion on Trumbo’s role and reaction to the blacklist.  As with the book as a whole, there is definitely enough there to interest the reader and spark further reading; but at times it feels a bit shallow.  A wider discussion of Hollywood practice or US politics is hinted at, but absent.

At times too, the character of Dalton Trumbo feels flat – for instance, he was apparently a witty (but occasionally caustic) man but, a few anecdotes aside, this doesn’t come across.  He was a family man, but this is told to us rather than shown.  A longer book may have had room for something more in depth, but this is a good introduction on a character that could have been forgotten.

Crimes of Elagabalus by Martijn Icks

According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.”   As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character.  Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen.  In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal.  As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods.  He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour.  In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.

In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life.  Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters.  The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.

In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine.  In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.

Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day.  There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality.  Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed.  Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.

In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired.  Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator.  Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?

Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.

Unreasonable Effectiveness

I just thought I would link to a couple of classic essays today.  These deal with the slightly mind boggling link up between mathematics and physical theories – often we have some sort of (often rough) measurements and a nice, neat mathematical formula that fits them, then the formula will seem to give a “law of nature” that is hugely accurate beyond what we might reasonably expect.

Is this just an artefact of how we use mathematics, or is there really an underlying mathematical structure to the universe?  It gets towards something that Steven Weinberg described in the book I read recently – the idea of a Final Theory in physics.  I’m not sure where I would come down on this, but they make interesting reading.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Hamming

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson

The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today.  In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.

For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian.  He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church).  His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture.  It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.

At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”.  He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion).  Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources.  Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.

Britain AD by Francis Pryor

41jz6dej8wl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement.  The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view.  In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.

There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors?  There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.

Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking.  Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic).  I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.

NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.

The Neutrino Hunters by Ray Jayawardhana

18684781Initial thoughts on this book – it’s much lighter than the other Physics books I have read recently (Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg and Strange Beauty by George Johnson).  The introduction references The Big Bang Theory and sci-fi books by Greg Bear.  The tone feels a world away from the manifesto of Weinberg and the heavy weight biography of Gell-Mann.  This is probably a good thing – Jayawardhana covers physics right up to the time of writing, and many of these experiments aren’t yet at the stage of results and are light on entertaining anecdotes, so the style helps keep things pacy.

With my background in Physics, I would actually be interested in more detail on the theory behind neutrinos but Jayawardhana largely leaves this out for quick summaries of the concepts.  In truth this is probably a better option, for the flow of the book and readability for a general audience.  The personalities involved, their motivations and the surroundings of the experiments and theory developments are described more than the actual theory itself – but these are of great interest: people like Pauli and Dirac, experiments like Ice Cube in the Antarctic or SNOLab in a Canadian nickel mine.  These provide more than enough material to fill the book.

The book inevitably tails off a little towards the end when we reach unfinished experiments and possible applications (detecting neutrinos to discover illegal nuclear material, for example) and feels like a little bit of a mish mash of all the ideas and experiments that the author declined to give more prominence in the main chapters of the book.  There are some of these stories that could be covered in further detail – there is just a short paragraph, for instance, on Samuel Ting and AMS.

Neutrino Hunters stays short and sweet though – an enthusiastic introduction to some of the biggest topics in particle physics today.

Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.