Once upon a time in a lab…

awesome (ˈɔːsəm ) , adjective

  1. Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe: the awesome power of the atomic bomb
  2. informal Extremely good; excellent: the band is truly awesome!

This is the definition of awesome from the Oxford Online Dictionary. I have my own:

awesome (ˈɔːsəm ) , adjective

  1. Containing at least three of the following: a good friend, geekery, beer, beautiful landscapes, bits of science, books.

Now it happened that I have spent the last weekend hiking in the Black Forest in Germany, talking about science and Tolkien’s books with a great friend. And of course beer to refresh ourselves after the walking. A most awesome weekend!

PANO_20150411_113212
A panorama view of Baden-Baden and the Black Forest from the Hohenbaden castle ruins.

All started in the Black Forest. The name, according to Lonely Planet, comes from “its dark, slightly sinister canopy of evergreens: this is where Hansel and Gretel encountered the wicked witch.” Although we did not know about it, we ended up with our theory on little creatures living the forest and the inhabitants of the nearby cities bringing gifts to keep the souls of the forest happy.

This, and some of the chat about Tolkien’s books and how Harry Potter’s Saga shaped our childhood, let me think about the curious coexistence of love for science and love for fantasy fictions. It is pretty common, and pretty understandable too, that a scientist is also passionate by Star Wars, Lego, Minecraft.

But looking around, I see that lots of times the same scientists do not dislike fantasy book, fairy tales, epic saga. Sometimes they are the biggest fans. My first instinct was to look for a psychologist study to prove my point. I did not find any, but I did not search really hard, because I got trapped in lots of interesting readings and I discovered a rich field I did not know.

In fact, although I cannot show a graph of incidence of passion for the fantasy genre and the success in scientific research, I can surely affirm that there is a wide community of scientists who are interested in the topic. One of the main usage of the fantasy genre is outreach. There is who makes up shows investigating which fairy tales episodes would be scientifically feasible, saving the Grimm brothers from the embarrassment to break Rapunzel’s neck. There is who challenges the mind of the youngest with physics exercises on Hansel and Gretel. There is who uses any astrological reference in fantasy books, from The chronicles of Narnia to Harry Potter to His Dark Materials to The Lord of the Ring, to write beautiful enjoyable pieces on how to do outreach. The last point has been extensively covered by Kristine Larsen, often recurring in my readings of the latest days.

Earendil's ship, Vingilot.
Earendil’s ship, Vingilot.

But outreach is not the only topic I read about. In fact, for example, the many journals you can find out there about Tolkien’s writings are not filled just with mythology studies and philology questions, but some science reference can be found quite often. Like the connection between Elwing to Mercury, who, like the planet, appears like a rose-stained light in the twilight trying to follow the more brilliant Morning or Evening star (Venus) who is Vingilot driven by her husband Earendil and then falling again, with nothing to do but wait for his periodic return near the sun. Or the impressive description of the battle that signs the triumph over dragons, in which the fall of Ancalagon the Black so much resembles the description of the medieval reports of bright meteors. And to prove further how much astronomers like Tolkien, the community refers to the Galaxy NGC 4151, one of the nearest neighbors to Earth, as “The Eye of Sauron” (the resemblance is indeed evident). But it is not just about astronomy. For example, to a recently discovered species of dinosaur is given the same name (Sauroniops). There is who is writing about geology. Even who writes scientific papers on climate change in the Middle Earth, and it is not purely imaginary (like the 2015 Nature April Fool joke about the existence of Dragons). The paper reports real simulations, describes the software, compares the results with the known Earth. So while discovering that The Shire has a climate very similar to Lincolnshire and Leicestershire and Mordor is more like Los Angeles and Texas, one can appreciate that  because “climate models are based on fundamental scientific processes, they are able not only to simulate the climate of the modern Earth, but can also be easily adapted to simulate any planet, real or imagined”. For the purists, the paper has been translated in Elvish and Dwarfish.

So, why there seems to be so much intimacy between science and fantasy?

On first though I believed it was a way to escape. The necessity to escape the rigidity of mathematics, protocols, procedures, analysis. The need to find refuge in a brand new world, where new undiscovered laws may apply. Although a reasonable explanation, I did not find it satisfactory. I kept digging and I found that Henry Gee, who wrote A Scientist in Middle Earth, recalls how it is often overseen that Tolkien was very close to be a scientist. The accuracy he puts in the description of the world he created is impressive, and it can be easily observed in how he curated names and languages (a really interesting and quick insight can be obtained by this 5 min TED-Ed lesson). In fact, philology itself is, from a certain prospective, a science, it is “about taking words and languages apart, to see how they work”. While I was reading his remarks on the subject, I found myself laughing at the memory of when I started high school and studying ancient Latin and ancient Greek I decided to become a philologist (before to face particles physics, as you may already know). Before now I always though that phase of my life to have been the period in which I was the most distant from science, and now I am asking my self if I really was.

What does fantasy genre have in common with science?

Well, whether you are reading about Harry or Aragorn, there is a full immersion experience thanks to the accuracy and the consistency of the fictional realm created. The same accuracy and consistency the scientific method requires. But more importantly, it is because the authors’ creativity. And every scientist knows well that this skill is extremely important in our work. A good scientist needs a lot of fantasy to picture the connection among the realities of physics, from the unbelievable quantum world to the amazing science of relativity. Fantasy is a skill fundamental to suggest new hypothesis and new theories or to come up with new experiments. Sometimes the understanding does not come from a reasonable process, but from the sparkle of a moment, a fragment of time in which intuition is born through a process which is impossible for me to explain without accounting for imagination. And after all, was not Tolkien himself who wrote that fantasy  “does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of scientific verity. On the contrary, the keener and clearer the reason, the better the fantasy it will make”?

I will leave you with a little treat: a small poem which I wrote ages ago, as an exercise in my vain attempt to master Elvish. Who will be able to translate it?

Anglenanthom le

athrom i gaer e damma os caun
athrom in orchail din en ammen elen

braniad guai mi tinnu
blabitha ammen tad huin

a radathom, cuiad en ammen meted

One thought on “Once upon a time in a lab…

  1. valeriebenti

    So first, I liked this post because then you’ll get an e-mail saying how I thought this post was “awesome”. Which it truly is in all three above-mentioned meanings of the word (or at least I always get such e-mails…)

    More to the topic, I was halfway through reading when I thought: the reason for the overlap in science and fantasy is because of both being so imaginative. And then you just went on to explain just that. (Great minds think alike?)

    In any case, fantasy involves exercising the mind and that only seems appealing to the scientist I would think. Isn’t conducting research also just one big mind exercise?

    But on the other hand, maybe we’d just like to imagine that a world can exist with dragons and elves and unicorns?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s