Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Poltergeists on Mars

January 21, 2014

Mysterious forces and poltergeists are at work  on Mars (which in due course will be found not to be so mysterious after all). But stories about moving rocks, and possible aliens are not new. The latest however is just doing the rounds based on the pictures SOL 3528 and 3540.

Rock appears mysteriously in front of Mars Opportunity rover

Rock appears mysteriously in front of Mars Opportunity rover

( lead scientist for NASA’s Mars rover exploration team (Steve Squyres) has announced that recent images beamed back by the Opportunity rover show a rock sitting in a place nearby where there wasn’t one just twelve days prior. The image, he says, has caused quite a commotion with the rover team as possible explanations for the sudden appearance of the rock are bandied about. The announcement was part of a meeting at California Institute of Technology to celebrate a decade of service by the tiny rover. …… 

….. How it got there has NASA’s best scratching their heads. Thus far, they have two main likely explanations: either the rock was tossed to that spot after a meteorite impact nearby, or far more likely, it came to rest there as a result of clumsy maneuvering by Opportunity itself. The rover is having trouble getting around these days as one of its actuators has failed. This means one wheel winds up scrapping the ground during turns, producing what Squyres described as “chatter” which he said could have caused some debris to be flung to where the rock is now.

But these stories have been appearing since – at least – about 2009 (based for example on pictures SOL 1833 onwards). Moving rocks on Mars have a long history of fanciful – and some not so fanciful – notions. A whole bunch can be found here and here. But it would seem that most of the conspiracy theories and “Life on Mars” stories are connected to the selling of particular books.

As far as stories are concerned, the first ever fictional account of Mars was probably Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg. But for me, The War of the Worlds (published in 1898) by H. G. Wells  and Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Martian Trilogy – published between 1912 and 1943 and which I first read in 1959 – are not easily surpassed.


Tolkien’s Middle Earth mapped to Europe

January 9, 2014

Some 45 years ago when I first read Tolkien, I recall making (or trying to make) a relief map of Middle Earth on cardboard with crumpled paper and glue and paint and plasticene for the relief features. I never had the patience to get it quite finsished and it was too large to survive my many moves as a student. But maps and cartography have fascinated ever since.

I have just come across this map of Middle Earth which – I think – is about 10 years old. Peter Bird is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences of UCLA and this map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is from his personal page. Here he superimposes Middle Earth onto a Europe at a time when sea levels (in my estimation) were more than 100m lower than they are today. All very fanciful of course, but interesting and for me very nostalgic.

From Frank Jacobs at strange maps:

But, as Tolkien states in the prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it would be fruitless to look for geographical correspondences, as “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…” And yet, that’s exactly what Peter Bird attempts with the map here shown. Bird, a professor of Geophysics and Geology at UCLA, has overlapped the map of Middle-earth with one of Europe, which leads to following locations:

  • The Shire is in the South-West of England, which further north is also home to the Old Forest (Yorkshire?), the Barrow Downs (north of England), the city of Bree (at or near Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Amon Sul (Scottish Highlands).
  • The Grey Havens are situated in Ireland.
  • Eriador corresponds with Brittany.
  • Helm’s Deep is near the Franco-German-Swiss border tripoint, close to the city of Basel.
  • The mountain chain of Ered Nimrais is the Alps.
  • Gondor corresponds with the northern Italian plains, extended towards the unsubmerged Adriatic Sea.
  • Mordor is situated in Transylvania, with Mount Doom in Romania (probably), Minas Morgul in Hungary (approximately) and Minas Tirith in Austria (sort of).
  • Rohan is in southern Germany, with Edoras at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. Also in Germany, but to the north, near present-day Hamburg, is Isengard. Close by is the forest of Fangorn.
  • To the north is Mirkwood, further east are Rhovanion and the wastes of Rhûn, close to the Ural mountains.
  • The Sea of Rhûn corresponds to the Black Sea.
  • Khand is Turkey
  • Haradwaith is the eastern part of North Africa, Umbar corresponds with the Maghreb, the western part of North Africa.
  • The Bay of Belfalas is the western part of the Mediterranean.
Middle Earth by Peter Bird

Middle Earth by Peter Bird
Allowing for polar wander and sea level change, most sites are recognizable. The southern Hithaeglir and northern Ephel Duath have sunk, unless perhaps they were only illusions that have been dispelled.

Men, muscles and noses (and why the Dong has a luminous nose)

November 20, 2013

A new study suggests that men have larger noses than women because they have greater muscle mass to supply with oxygen. That is also possibly why archaic humans with greater muscle mass than modern humans also had larger noses.

Nathan E. Holton, Todd R. Yokley, Andrew W. Froehle, Thomas E. Southard, Ontogenetic scaling of the human nose in a longitudinal sample: Implications for genusHomofacial evolutionAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22402 

The University of Iowa’s news release:

Human noses come in all shapes and sizes. But one feature seems to hold true: Men’s noses are bigger than women’s.

A new study from the University of Iowa concludes that men’s noses are about 10 percent larger than female noses, on average, in populations of European descent. The size difference, the researchers believe, comes from the sexes’ different builds and energy demands: Males in general have more lean muscle mass, which requires more oxygen for muscle tissue growth and maintenance. Larger noses mean more oxygen can be breathed in and transported in the blood to supply the muscle.

The researchers also note that males and females begin to show differences in nose size at around age 11, generally, when puberty starts. Physiologically speaking, males begin to grow more lean muscle mass from that time, while females grow more fat mass. Prior research has shown that, during puberty, approximately 95 percent of body weight gain in males comes from fat-free mass, compared to 85 percent in females. …. 

…. It also explains why our noses are smaller than those of our ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. The reason, the researchers believe, is because our distant lineages had more muscle mass, and so needed larger noses to maintain that muscle. Modern humans have less lean muscle mass, meaning we can get away with smaller noses.

“So, in humans, the nose can become small, because our bodies have smaller oxygen requirements than we see in archaic humans,” Holton says, noting also that the rib cages and lungs are smaller in modern humans, reinforcing the idea that we don’t need as much oxygen to feed our frames as our ancestors. “This all tells us physiologically how modern humans have changed from their ancestors.” ….

And by whatever strange associations that go on in my brain, Edward Lear’s explanation for how his heartbroken and stalwart Dong made himself a prosthetic, luminous nose (which I must have first read some 50 years ago) keeps going around in my head (extract from Edward Lear’s nonsense poem).

……. And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along, —
            “The Dong! — the Dong!
      “The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
            “The Dong! the Dong!
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!”
Playing a pipe with silvery squeaks,
      Since then his Jumbly Girl he seeks,
      And because by night he could not see,
      He gathered the bark of the Twangum Tree
            On the flowery plain that grows.
            And he wove him a wondrous Nose, —
      A Nose as strange as a Nose could be!
Of vast proportions and painted red,
And tied with cords to the back of his head.
      — In a hollow rounded space it ended
      With a luminous Lamp within suspended,
            All fenced about
            With a bandage stout
            To prevent the wind from blowing it out; —
      And with holes all round to send the light,
      In gleaming rays on the dismal night.
And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night, —
      “This is the hour when forth he goes,
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!
      “Yonder — over the plain he goes;
            “He goes!
            “He goes;
      “The Dong with a luminous Nose!”

The Dong was first published in 1846 and maybe Rudolph, who first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May, got his glowing red nose, in a similar way to the Dong.

HC Andersen’s lost tale: The Tallow Candle

December 19, 2012

A Christmas present for all lovers of HC Andersen’s fairy tales.

Danish National Archives:

At the Funen Provincial Archives enthusiasm is running high. If you ask Denmark’s leading Hans Christian Andersen expert, Ejnar Stig Askgård, he is in no doubt – it’s a sensational find that has turned up: “It’s my view that this is a transcript of one of Hans Christian Ander­sen’s earliest tales. It’s a work of his youth, from before Andersen’s real debut as a writer and poet. So the manuscript The Tallow Candle must be considered the first tale from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a fantastic find.” …. 

Many people will perhaps be asking, “How can we be sure it’s a genuine Hans Christian Andersen tale?” According to the Hans Christian Andersen expert, we can tell from among other things the traces of history, the language and the themes in the manuscript – and they all bear the clear fingerprint of Hans Christian Andersen. “The tale The Tallow Candle has a classic Hans Christian Andersen theme. The themes that run through all his tales also recur here, the idea of ‘inner truth’ as opposed to ‘outer transience’,” says Ejnar Stig Askgård.

The short tale in English is printed by and is reproduced here.

Copy of an original manuscript that is believed to have been lost, with a later dedication in blue ink reading: To P Plum from his friend Bunkeflod. The Plum and Bunkeflod families were close friends, and Hans Christian Andersen had a close relationship with Mme Bunkeflod.

To Mme Bunkeflod
from her devoted
H.C. Andersen

The Tallow Candle

It sizzled and fizzled as the flames fired the cauldron.. it was the Tallow Candle’s cradle – and out of the warm cradle came a flawless candle; solid, shining white and slim it was formed in a way that made everyone who saw it believe that it was a promise of a bright and radiant future – promises that everyone who looked on believed it would really want to keep and fulfil.

The sheep – a fine little sheep – was the candle’s mother, and the melting pot its father. Its mother had given it a shiny white body and an inkling about life, but from its father it had been given a craving for the flaming fire that would eventually go through its marrow and bone and shine for it in life.

That’s how it was born and had grown; and with the best and brightest anticipation cast itself into existence. There it met so many, many strange creations that it became involved with, wanting to learn about life – and perhaps find the place where it would best fit in. But it had too much faith in the world that only cared about itself, and not at all about the Tallow Candle. A world that failed to understand the value of the candle, and thus tried to use it for its own benefit, holding the candle wrongly; black fingers leaving bigger and bigger blemishes on its pristine white innocence which eventually faded away, completely covered by the dirt of a surrounding world that had come much too close; much closer than the candle could endure, as it had been unable to tell grime from purity – although it remained pristine and unspoiled inside.

False friends found they could not reach its inner self and angrily cast the candle away as useless.

The filthy outer shell kept all the good away – scared as they were to be tainted with grime and blemishes – and they stayed away.

So there was the poor Tallow Candle, solitary and left alone, at a loss at what to do. Rejected by the good, it now realised it had only been a tool to further the wicked. It felt so unbelievably unhappy, because it had spent its life to no good end – in fact it had perhaps sullied the better parts of its surroundings. It just could not determine why it had been created or where it belonged; why it had been put on this earth – perhaps to end up ruining itself and others.

More and more, and deeper and deeper, it contemplated – but the more it considered itself, the more despondent it became, finding nothing good, no real substance for itself, no real goal for the existence it had been given at its birth. As if the grimy cape had also covered its eyes.

But then it met a little flame, a tinder box. It knew the candle better than the Tallow Candle knew itself. The tinder box had such a clear view – straight through the outer shell – and inside it found so much good. It came closer and there was bright expectation in the candle – it lit and its heart melted.

Out burst the flame, like the triumphant torch of a blissful wedding. Light burst out bright and clear all around, bathing the way forward with light for its surroundings – its true friends – who were now able to seek truth in the glow of the candle.

The body too was strong enough to give sustenance to the fiery flame. One drop upon another, like the seeds of a new life, trickled round and chubby down the candle, covering the old grime with their bodies.

They were not just the bodily, but also the spiritual issue of the marriage.

And the Tallow Candle had found its right place in life – and shown that it was a real candle, and went on to shine for many a year, pleasing itself and the other creations around it.

H.C. Andersen.

Arrogant and overbearing political correctness censures Tintin from Stockholm library

September 25, 2012

See update below:

I have little patience with the “do-gooders” who always know best what is good for others. But impatience turns to an active dislike when an arrogant young man (a certain Behrang Meri) presumes that his world-view shall prevail and takes it upon himself to be a censor by removing all copies of Tintin from the shelves of the 10-13 year old library of Stockholm’s Culture Centre. Of course he claims he is doing this “for their own good”. Arrogance and coercion are the stock-in-trade of the “do-gooders” and is wide-spread in Sweden. Banning things for the “good of others” is the order of the day. Some of the coercive tactics employed – even if now coming from the left of the political spectrum – are indistinguishable from those employed by the fascists in Europe almost 100 years ago.

Dagens Nyheter reports (my free translation):

Tintin has been ejected from the Culture Centre in Stockholm. DN can report that the beloved cartoon character has been cleaned out from the library shelves. Now the staff have been instructed to look for any more books which have racist or homophobic values.

The 10-13 year old library of Stockholm’s Culture Centre has  removed Tintin books from the shelves. In consultation with their staff, the artistic director with responsibility for children and activities for the young made ​​the decision.

“That’s right. The picture Tintin books give for example of Africans is afrofobisk. Africans are shown to be a bit silly while Arabs are sitting on flying carpets and Turks smoke water pipes. The image of  the “forest Turk” is still there. It’s about exoticism and Orientalism”, says Behrang Miri, who leads efforts to develop Child and Youth Culture activities in the sections for children, “Tiotretton” and “Lava”. ……. 

Behrang Meri, the self-appointed censor in this case, was appointed to his position in February this year.

He was on the radio this morning and tried to babble his way through by insisting that he was removing the books so that children could actually go deeper into the questions of racism!!  He seemed to be avoiding all questions and merely spouting a practised defence. I would have thought that deepening children’s understanding would only be possible by exposure to the books and not by his over-bearing, over-protectiveness denying exposure to the books. In any case the Tintin serials – which I greatly enjoyed through my childhood – were written in a colonial time and had no racist intentions. It depicted the world-view that existed at the time. Censorship will not change history or cause those times to disappear.

He failed to impress and I cannot help feeling that his ego has got the better of him and his objective is mere self-promotion rather than the cultural enrichment of 10-13 year old children.


Following a storm of media criticism, officials at the Kulturhuset library in Stockholm have reversed their decision to remove Tintin comic books from its shelves, saying the move happened “too fast”.

I note that it was the head of the Culture Centre who reversed the censorship and Bahrang Meri has accepted being overruled. In spite of his vehement defence of his decision on the radio this morning this was clearly not a resigning issue. Some damage control is ongoing but damage there certainly is:

“I wanted to highlight an opinion piece about issues of discrimination, but realize now that it’s wrong to ban books,” Meri said in a statement. However, Kulturhuset head Sjöström applauded Meri for prompting a discussion about discrimination. 
“The issues of discrimination, equality and norms continue to be debated and discussed,” Sjöström said in a statement.

Saffron Sollitt wins 2011 Poohsticks

March 28, 2011

A.A. Milne

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.  “Pooh!” he whispered.  “Yes, Piglet?”  “Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw.  “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

BBC reports:

Little Wittenham Bridge with the lock keeper's house beyond: image Wikipedia

A nine-year-old girl from Oxfordshire has won the individual prize in the World Pooh Sticks Championships. Saffron Sollitt, from Wallingford, beat 500 other competitors from around the globe at Days Lock in Little Wittenham, near Abingdon, on the River Thames.

Team Kelly took the top spot in the group competition. Last year’s event was cancelled due to high water levels. The competition attracted entries from New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands.

The championships started in 1983 when the lock keeper noticed walkers recreating Pooh’s pastime on the River Thames.

He thought it would be an excellent way of raising money for his favourite charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). The event went from strength to strength until the lock keeper’s retirement when it was passed to the Rotary Clubs of Oxford Spires and Sinodun.

Money raised this year, expected to be excess of £1,500, will go to the RNLI, Little Wittenham Church and other charities supported by the Rotary club.

All about Poohsticks: image theenchanted100acrewoods


Poohsticks is a game first mentioned in The House at Pooh Corner, a Winnie-the-Pooh book by A. A. Milne. It is a simple game which may be played on any bridge over running water; each player drops a stick on the upstream side of a bridge and the one whose stick first appears on the downstream side is the winner. The annual World Poohsticks Championships have been held at Day’s Lock on the River Thames since 1984.

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