Friday, March 24, 2006

The Massacre at Chios

The French painter Eugene Delacroix immortalized the Massacre at Chios; this is one of his most famous paintings. The painting was originally exhibited in 1824, and purchased at that time by Charles X, king of France, for the Louvre museum. As a work of art, the painting has earned a place in history.

The picture also serves as a history lesson. The Massacre at Chios occurred in 1822. The Islamic armies of the Ottoman Empire were attacking Greece. These armies, launched from Turkey, encountered the small island of Chios on their way to Greece. Here, it became clear what their intent was. The island was not only a military objective, but also an example of the kind of human subjugation envisioned by the Muslim attempt at expansion. The women of the island were subjected to systematic mass rape; large numbers of the population were executed.

The events at Chios awakened Europe to the inhumane terror which was threatening, once again, to invade. Delacroix's painting was a wake-up call.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Pretzels, Bagels, and Culture

Approximately two thousand years ago, central Europe was the home of the Germanic tribes. The Roman expansion in Europe never succeeded in establishing a permanent foothold in the area north of the Danube and east of the Rhine, leaving this region as one of the few truly independent cultural centers of Europe.

These Germanic tribes - they were not Germans, though some of them would later be - gave us many cultural treasures, including literary masterpieces like the Icelandic Sagas, or the Nibelungen; they also gave us the basis of the English language. English, as students of Beowulf know, is derived largely from Germanic dialects like Saxon and Frisian, and only a few English vocabulary items came from Latin.

These founders of what would later become several nations - Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Prussia, Austria, Flanders, Iceland, and kingdoms like Saxony, Bavaria, Hessen, etc. - were innovators and experimenters. One interesting practice which they began was the boiling of a solution of lye and water. Lye is a caustic and dangerous chemical, sodium hydroxide, NaOH. This boiling mixture is toxic if consumed, and causes chemical burns on human skin. But into this liquid, they tossed lumps of bread dough. Scooping them out of vat, these lumps were then baked, often with salt. The lye was rendered non-toxic by the baking and by reacting with the bread dough, but it left a distinctive and pleasurable taste, and a glossy brown surface.

A few centuries later, the Germanic tribes would be exposed to the belief systems of Christianity and Judaism. This caused them to give up their habit of sacrificing humans on stone altars to the Germanic pagan divinities. But they didn't give up their lye.

Those Germanic tribes who converted to Christianity began to form their bread dough into the distinctive shape we now know as a "pretzel"; the Jews who settled in the area learned the practice from their Germanic neighbors, but opted for a simpler, circular shape - a bagel, from the Germanic word meaning "circle".

Friday, March 17, 2006

Newton vs. Leibniz

The intense debate between Leibniz and Newton about the nature of space-time has impacted the nature of physics to this day.

Leibniz said that "space-time" (i.e., space and time) does not have an independent, real existence of its own. Rather, it exists only relative to objects. If we removed all energy and matter from the universe, there would be no space or time, Leibniz says.

Newton says that space-time is real, that it has an existence all of its own, independent of material objects. So Newton says that if we removed all matter and energy from the universe, we would be left with empty space and empty time.

Leibniz says that there is no such thing as "empty space-time", and produces the following argument for this view. If, Leibniz says, we moved everything in the universe five feet in one direction, there would be no discernable difference between the state affairs before the move and the state of affairs after the move. Thus, Leibniz continues, there is no absolute location, but rather, location is merely relative. Therefore, space-time exists merely relative to objects, and does not have a real independent existence of its own.

Newton disagrees. Newton says that, if we removed all matter and energy from the universe, and in its place we placed a bucket of water, and then we gradually begin to spin that bucket of water, eventually the water would spill over the edge. This would prove that the bucket is spinning. But, if the universe were devoid of all matter and energy in this experiment, the bucket would have to be spinning relative to something, and, Newton continues, that "something" would be the absolute, independently-existing space-time matrix.

Newton later revised this thought experiment to go as follows: in a universe emptied of all matter and energy, place two rocks connected by a string. If we spin these rocks around an axis point between them, tension will be detected on the string. This would prove that the rocks are indeed spinning. But they must be spinning relative to something, which would be the absolute independently-existing space-time matrix.

A very good account of this debate, describing both sides, can be found the following book:

Author: Sklar, Lawrence
Title: Space, Time, and Spacetime
Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1974, 1976, 1977
ISBN 0-520-03174-1

The book was written by a professor at the U of M, and is used in U of M physics courses. I strongly recommend this book. The section on the Leibniz-Newton debate is only part of the book; it discusses many other topics.

If you are taking a physics course this semester, you might ask your physics teacher about this.

So, who was correct? Leibniz or Newton?

J.S. Bach in Michigan?

Once, when an acquaintance praised Bach's wonderful skill as an organist, he replied with characteristic humility and wit, "there is nothing very wonderful about it. You have only to hit the right notes at the right moment, and the instrument does the rest."

Bach had twenty children. The love he felt for his large family is evident in a heartrending letter Bach wrote on behalf of an erring son who had incurred large debts and then left his town: "What can I do or say more, my warnings having failed, and my loving care and help having proved unavailing? I can only bear my cross in patience and commend my undutiful boy to God's mercy, never doubting that He will hear my sorrow-stricken prayer and in His good time bring my son to understand that the path of coversion leads to Him."

As Dr. Ingram demonstrated in lecture, Bach is one of the most productive, gifted, and seminal genius-composers in the history of music. One can easily devote years of study in order to fully explore Bach's music. We can only have the briefest of introductions to him now, so please consider examining him more fully on your own later.

There is a book entitled, "Gödel, Escher, and Bach", which explores the relations between the music of various composers on the one hand, and the concepts of algebra, artificial intelligence, and visual patterning in art on the other. This book is worth reading, because it shows the algebraic algorithms which various composers used in their works, and how those equations also show up in the visual arts (painting, drawing, etc.) and in literature.

Bach borrowed, e.g., the literary structure of chiasmus and created a musical analogue to it.

But Bach also has a Michigan connection!

Several years ago, a man was looking through some old used books in Frankenmuth, Michigan. He found and purchased some old German books. When he took them home and began to read them, he realized that these books were from the personal library of J.S. Bach! Bach had written many comments and notes in the margins of these books, just as most students do. The notes have been carefully copied from these books and published in a book of their own. "Bach's Marginalia" is an example of the kind of discoveries you can make if you have a good education and spend your time paging through old books!

At first, it might seem odd that Bach's book would end up in Michigan. But in the decades after Bach's death in 1750, millions of Germans came to the United States. In fact, more people came from Germany than from any other country. Naturally, these people brought all kinds of personal possessions with them, including a few old books!

Goethe, Faust, and Religion

How can we make sense of Goethe's seemingly self-contradictory views on religion? On the one hand, he makes no pretense of being a Christian, and yet on the other hand, he views the Christian Bible as the source of ultimate spiritual truth. Faust is filled with Biblical allusions. Christianity has both spiritual doctrines and moral doctrines, and Goethe endorses some of both. What is he up to?

One possible way to interpret Goethe would be to say that he is making the historical distinction between Christianity and the church. Christianity is a set of concepts and the actions entailed by the belief in those concepts. The church, on the other hand, is an institution. Goethe rejects both Christianity and the Church, but he rejects them separately, and differently. His rejection of the Church is absolute. His analysis of Christianity is more tentative and wavering. He seems attracted to some facets of Christian spirituality, but unable to embrace them.

We can trace these two through history, and see that often, Christianity opposed the church in many situations. In other situations, Christianity clearly sided with the church. Can you think of concrete historical examples?

So perhaps this was what motivated Goethe's somewhat schizophrenic views. Was Goethe trying to embrace the some of the views of Christianity, reject others, and at the same time distance himself from the church? Which sentences in Faust would be evidence for this?

Goethe had, in the final analysis, an inability to commit, either to a woman, or to a system of belief. He rejected both Christianity and atheism, used the word "pagan" to describe himself, and was nevery quite able to formulate a specific statement of what he actually did believe.

When we study about Goethe, we can take two approaches:

on the one hand, we can study about Goethe's life, his friends and business acquaintances, the influential thinkers of his day, and look at photographs of his house and how he decorated it, and then see how these things influenced, or are reflected in, the text of "Faust".

on the other hand, we can strictly ignore all the background information about Goethe and the times he lived in, and instead focus on the text of Faust alone, examining it carefully for clues about what Goethe thought and what he meant.

Which approach is the correct one?

What do the words "isogogics" and "hermeneutics" mean?