Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Forever War (by Joe Haldeman) re-read

(Originally posted on Tuesday, 22 November 2016)

My rating: 10/10

Have you ever bought the same book more than once? I did. I bought several books twice, but there is one book that I bought THREE times – The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. I had borrowed the first book to my aunt and I forgot about it. After several years I bought it the second time because the urge to read it again was unstoppable. Recently bought it for the third time to read it in English.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is by far the best novel I have ever read that makes extensive use of real physics. Most science-fiction books are mostly fiction, but The Forever War is in many places REAL science!!! Real science used in an awesome, thought-provoking way.

The Forever War is remarkably visionary (in many different ways) even today. When I was reading it for the first time I couldn't believe that it was written in 1970s! The only thing that is a little awkward is the fact that the plot starts in 1990s and by now we know that there has been no such rapid space-travel improvement as described in the novel.

The Forever War is still up-to-day, mostly because nobody proved that Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity is wrong. Here's my post about this theory:
The Forever War (by Joe Haldeman) and Einstein’s special theory of relativity

The Forever War is still a science-fiction book, not all-science book. The most important aspect of fiction are very good sources of energy (especially for the spaceships and for the combat suites) and the collapsars (space objects that allow a kind of instant teleportation/travel to another collapsar). These science-fiction assumptions combined with the real physics made a thrilling combination!

Some reviewers claim that in this novel Haldeman made a lecture on physics, but such claims are simply ridiculous. First of all, there are no mathematical formulas in the novel! A lecture on physics without formulas? Oh, come on! Second of all, the numbers given in the novel are of the same kind as in any decent novel (not only a science-fiction novel, but any KIND of novel): speeds, distances and times of travel. Such info gives an idea about the passing of time and about a described world in general. Without such info a book (ANY book) would be shallow, to say the least.

To me the biggest positive aspect of the novel was that Haldeman added the info about accelerations! In normal novels such info is not important because you usually reach a maximum available speed in a very short time. Not so in space. Have you ever wondered how much time would be needed to reach a particular fraction of the speed of light when travelling with the acceleration of 1G (the acceleration on Earth caused by gravity)? Or what would happen to people if the acceleration was higher than that (without any fictional “stabilisers”)? Such trivia can be found all over the book. AWESOME!!! And true.

During one re-reading of this book (probably the second time I’ve read it) I was using a calculator and basic physical formulas WHILE reading the book. I checked every value that was connected with acceleration, speed, distance and time of travel. Everything was correct! But you don’t have to use a calculator to enjoy the novel – all the results are simply given by Haldeman in such a way that without paying attention you will miss half of them. In other words: the physical info is given in a by-the-way kind of way that don’t distract the reader from the main plot of the novel.

The ultimate praise for this book is the fact that people who don’t care about real physics will be interested by the plot of the novel anyway because it’s very gripping and fast. On the other hand people who care about real physics (like me) will be utterly fascinated by all the info thrown in by the way. I simply can’t describe how much I enjoyed this book!

There is only one aspect of the book that was really troubling me – the sexual side of the novel. The “rules of engagements” in the first part of the novel are especially questionable. Over time they change, but they change together with a transformation of the whole society (into a society of homosexuals). Thankfully the main character doesn't change and the army decides not to interfere (with any “treatment course” for his “deviation”).

The ending of the novel is simply awesome! In TWO different ways! Overall there are many cool things happening in the Forever War, but describing them would be like giving spoilers. Believe me, this novel is one of the best novels (of any kind) ever written.

    (…) The floor team was waiting at the foot of the bridge, each one holding a piece of the light, stressed permaplast over his head like an umbrella. They were dry and clean. I wondered aloud what they had done to deserve it, and Rogers suggested a couple of colorful, but unlikely, possibilities.

    There really wasn't any sense in having us train in the cold. Typical army halflogic. Sure, it was going to be cold where we were going, but not ice-cold or snow-cold. Almost by definition, a portal planet remained within a degree or two of absolute zero all the time – since collapsars don't shine – and the first chill you felt would mean that you were a dead man.

    They had spent all that money on us just to kill us in training?

    We stopped for the "night" – actually, the sun wouldn't set for another seventy hours – atop a slight rise some ten klicks from where we had killed the aliens. But they weren't aliens, I had to remind myself – we were.

    “Most of you are too young to remember the term future shock. Back in the seventies, some people felt that technological progress was so rapid that people, normal people, couldn't cope with it; that they wouldn't have time to get used to the present before the future was upon them. A man named Toffler coined the term future shock to describe this situation.” The commodore could get pretty academic.
    “We're caught up in a physical situation that resembles this scholarly concept. The result has been disaster. Tragedy. And, as we discussed in our last meeting, there is no way to counter it. Relativity traps us in the enemy's past; relativity brings them from our future. We can only hope that next time, the situation will be reversed. (…)”

    At her apartment on the ninety-second floor, she apologized for the smallness of the place. It didn't seem so little to me, but then she'd never lived on a spaceship.

    One thing we didn't have to worry about in this war was enemy agents. With a good coat of paint, a Tauran might be able to disguise himself as an ambulatory mushroom. Bound to raise suspicions.

    Most of them either had English as their native tongue or as a second language, but it had changed so drastically over 450 years that I could barely understand it, not at all if it was spoken rapidly. Fortunately, they had all been taught early twenty-first century English during their basic training; that language, or dialect, served as a temporal lingua franca through which a twenty-fifth century soldier could communicate with someone who had been a contemporary of his nineteen-times-great-grandparents. lf there had still been such a thing as grandparents.

    I did have a new friend who sat in my lap all the time. It was the cat, who had the usual talent for hiding from people who like cats and cleaving unto those who have sinus trouble or just don't like sneaky little animals. We did have something in common, though, since to my knowledge he was the only other heterosexual male mammal within any reasonable distance. He'd been castrated, of course, but that didn't make much difference under the circumstances.

    It improved the troops' morale to get out and chew up the landscape with their new toys. But the landscape wasn't fighting back. No matter how physically impressive the weapons were, their effectiveness would depend on what the Taurans could throw back. A Greek phalanx must have looked pretty impressive, but it wouldn't do too well against a single man with a flamethrower.
    And as with any engagement, because of time dilation, there was no way to tell what sort of weaponry they would have. They might have never heard of the stasis field. Or they might be able to say a magic word and make us disappear.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The God Particle (by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi)

My rating: 9/10

The God Particle – If the Universe Is the Answer What Is the Question? (this is the full title) by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi is an amazing book written in 1993, but still viable today.

There are many things I would like to write about The God Particle, but obviously I have to start with the title. Here’s what Lederman wrote in the preface to a new edition (2006):
     Now, as for the title, The God Particle, my co-author, Dick Teresi, has agreed to accept the blame (I paid him off). I mentioned the phrase as a joke once in a speech, and he remembered it and used it as the working title of the book. “Don’t worry,” he said, “no publisher ever uses the working title on the final book.” The rest is history. The title ended up offending two groups: 1) those who believe in God, and 2) those who do not. We were warmly received by those in the middle.

I am a religious person myself (Latin/Roman Catholic), but I didn’t have any trouble reading this book. It’s not about faith or a lack of faith of any people (physicists or readers). Basically it’s a beautifully told history of particle physics. The title particle – the Higgs boson – is described only in the chapter 8 that starts only at the page 342! This is the biggest drawback of the title – people who want to read only about the title particle will be disappointed.

What’s good:
1. Eye-opening info about old-time Greek philosophers.
Before reading this book I had had a rather low opinion about old-time Greek philosophers and I was really surprised that they pondered on the way the universe works. They were theoretical physicists of their time. Lederman describes it in an imaginary dialogue with Democritus. Here’s a small part of it:
LEDERMAN: What gave you the idea of atoms? It was, I must admit, a brilliant hypothesis. But it goes way beyond what went before.
DEMOCRITUS: Bread. (…) One day, during a prolonged fest, someone walked into my study carrying loaf of bread just out of the oven. I knew it was bread before I saw it. I thought: some invisible essence of bread traveled ahead and reached my Grecian nose. I made a note about odors and thought about other “travelling essences”. A small pool of water shrinks and eventually dries up. Why? How? (…) My friend Leucippus and I argued for days and days, sometimes until the sun rose and our wives came after us with clubs. (…) Then we got a better idea. Have only a few different styles of atoms, like smooth, rough, round, angular, and have a selected number of different shapes, but have an infinitive supply of each kind. Then put them in empty space. (Boy, you should have seen all the beer we drank to understand empty space! How do you define “nothing at all”?) (…)
LEDERMAN: How did you imagine the indivisibility of atoms?
DEMOCRITUS: It took place in the mind. Imagine a knife of polished bronze. We ask our servant to spend his entire day honing the edge until it can sever a blade of grass held at its distant end. (…) I cut the cheese in two with the knife. Then again and again, until I have a speck of cheese too small to hold. Now I think that if I myself were much smaller, the speck would appear larger to me, and I could hold it, and with my knife honed even sharper, cut it again and again. Now I must again, in my mind, reduce myself (…). I continue cutting the cheese. If I repeat the process enough (…) eventually I will come to a piece of stuff so hard that it can never be cut, even given enough servants to sharpen the knife for a hundred years. I believe the smallest object cannot be cut forever as a matter of necessity. It is unthinkable that we can continue to cut forever, as some so-called learned philosophers say. Now I have the ultimate uncuttable objet, the atomos.
LEDERMAN: And you came up with this idea in fifth-century-B.C. Greece?
DEMOCRITUS: Yes, why? Your ideas today are so much different?
LEDERMAN: Well, actually, they’re pretty much the same. It’s just that we hate the fact that you published first.

2. History of physical experiments and theories.
This is the best and the longest part of the book. And this is the reason I value this book so high. The history of physics, especially the history of particle physics is beautiful. And for centuries a big part of physics was in fact particle physics, but they didn’t know that then. Lederman on the page 64 (the end of chapter 2, after the part about old-time Greek philosophers) gives a list of 35 names written along one line that shows the history of particle physics. In fact the book describes even more people and their discoveries. Among others there are Democritus, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Curie, Hertz, Einstein, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Fermi and Feynman. The history of physics is so beautiful because there were all those great people who were responsible for all the groundbreaking physical experiments and theories. They were creative. They were patient. They were precise. They were obsessed. Sometimes they were on a brink of madness. But they did incredible job of collecting and analysing experimental data. Here’s an example from the page 151:
     Here was a ghost arisen. The nature of light was an old battleground. Recall that Newton and Galileo held that light consisted of “corpuscles.” The Danish astronomer Christian Huygens argued for a wave theory. This historic battle of Newton’s corpuscles and Huygens’ waves had been settled in favor of waves by Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment (which we will review soon) early in the nineteenth century. In quantum theory, the corpuscle was resurrected, in the form of the photon, and the wave-corpuscle dilemma was revived with a surprising ending.
     But there was even more trouble ahead for classical physics, thanks to Ernest Rutherford and his discovery of the nucleus.
     Ernest Rutherford is one of those characters almost too good to be true, as if he were delivered to the scientific community by Central Casting. A big, gruff New Zealander with a walrus mustache, Rutherford was the first foreigner research student admitted to the famed Cavendish Laboratory, run at the time by J. J. Thomson. Rutherford arrived just in time to witness the discovery of the electron. Good with his hands (unlike his boss, J. J.), he was an experimenter’s experimenter, a worthy rival to Faraday as the best ever. He was known for his profound belief that swearing at an experiment made it work better, a notion backed up by experimental results, if not theory.

3. Humour and funny anecdotes.
The book is written with humour that suits my taste perfectly. It’s mostly a tongue-in-cheek kind of humour, but sometimes it’s sarcastic or self-depreciating. There are also many funny anecdotes, but sometimes I wondered if they were really true:
     (…) Saying this to an experimenter is like throwing down a gauntlet. Searches for quarks began everywhere. (…) One Stanford University experimenter, using tiny, precisely engineered balls made of pure niobium, reported trapping a quark. The experiment languished when it couldn’t be repeated, and disrespectful undergrads wore T-shirts inscribed “You have to have niobium balls if you want to trap quarks.”

4. Understandable explanations of modern physics, especially of quantum theory.
Another high point of the book – it is written with hardly any mathematical equations, so you can get a grip what modern physics is all about without much trouble. Well, there is some trouble because even a very good analogy (instead of a mathematical equation) or a very basic description of a totally new concept has to be chewed by a human brain on its own. For example the fact that no quark can exist alone makes it impossible to “see” it even in the best accelerator detector. Here’s how Lederman describes it:
     Our uneasiness with the fact that quarks were never seen outside of hadrons was only moderately tempered by a physical picture of why quarks are permanently confined. At close distances, quarks exert relatively weak forces on one another. This is the glory domain for theorists, where they can calculate properties of the quark state and the quark’s influence on collision experiment. As the quarks separate, however, the force becomes stronger, and the energy required to add distance between them rises rapidly until, long before we have actually separated the quarks, the energy input results in the creation of a new quark-antiquark pair.
     (…) Bjorken and Feynman had suggested that in very hard collisions of particles, the energized quarks would initially head out and, just before leaving the influence of their quark partners, would mask themselves into a narrow bundle of hadrons – three or four or eight pions, for example, or add some kaons and nucleons. These would be narrowly directed along the path of the parent quark. They were given the name “jets,” and the search was on.

5. First-hand info about particle colliders (particle accelerators).
Leon Lederman is not only a Nobel Prize winner, but he is also a former Director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (also known as Fermilab) which was then the largest such laboratory in the USA and in the world. In fact Lederman was lucky enough and brilliant enough to work with top-notch equipment throughout his career which started in the 1950s. During his lifetime the progresses in the field of particle accelerators has been HUGE and you can find first-hand info about it in the book.
     Particles make 50,000 orbits in one second around this 4-mile track. In 10 seconds the particles have traveled 2 million miles. Each time they pass a gap – actually a series of specially constructed cavities – a radio-frequency voltage kicks up the energy by about 1 MeV. The magnets that keep the particles focused allow them to deviate from their appointed rounds by less than one eighth of an inch over the entire trip. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. Like aiming a rifle at a mosquito sitting on the moon but hitting it in the wrong eye.

What’s bad:
1. The title.
As I mentioned above The God Particle is neither about God nor about the Higgs boson. What’s worse the chapter 8 titled “The God Particle at Last” seemed to me to be artificially expanded. I think that some things described there should be placed in chapter 7 or chapter 9!
2. Too long with too much info.
There are 414 pages in a format that is larger than usual and the font is rather small, so there is LOTS of reading. Reading such a long book of any kind (fantasy book for example) could get tiresome and reading such a long book on physics is really a challenge. The historical parts were not so bad in this regard, but the technical stuff about accelerators or the newest and most advanced physics theories were just a little bit too much. BUT it is not too bad as I have read this book 3 times already, and I will definitely read it again. Moreover finishing the book gives you the feeling of an achievement.
3. A little old.
The book was written in 1993, so it’s not perfectly up-to-date. But it’s VERY close – the top quark has been discovered as it was predicted in the book and another unknown particle – probably the Higgs boson itself – was detected too. And that’s all for basic particles.

Reading The God Particle was like taking part in a beautiful journey through humankind ingenuity. It’s not a perfect book, but very close (for casual readers).

PS. In the last chapter, among other things Lederman writes about seasons (like summer or winter). There is absolutely no connection with particle physics, but Lederman seems to vent his frustration (or should I say his outrage?):
     (…) Of twenty-three graduates randomly selected at Harvard’s 1987 commencement ceremonies, only two could explain why it is hotter in summer than in winter. The answer, by the way, is not “because the sun is closer in summer.” It isn’t closer. The earth’s axis of rotation is tilted, so when the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, the rays are closer to being perpendicular to the surface, and that half of the globe enjoys summer. The other hemisphere gets oblique rays – winter. Six months later the situation is reversed.
     The sad part about ignorance of twenty-one out of twenty-three Harvard grads – Harvard, by God! – who couldn’t answer the question is what they are missing. They have gone through life without understanding a seminal human experience: the seasons.

I would like to vent my frustration (or should I say my outrage?) too, but on a different topic. The years 1999 and 2000 were very hard for me because I realised that most of the people in the world can’t recognise properly when a particular century starts and when it ends. In 1999 I kept hearing that all the things were “the last in the 20th century” and in 2000 I kept hearing that all the things were “the first in the 21st century”. Oh, dear God!!! The last day of the 20th century was 31 December 2000!!! And the first day of the 21st century was 1 January 2001!!! Let me explain it once and for all:
1. A century (ANY century) means 100 FULL years.
2. There was no 0 year. The year 1 BC was followed by 1 AD. There was nothing in between.
3. The first day of the 1st year of the 1st century was 1 January 1.
4. The last day of the 1st year of the 1st century was 31 December 1.
5. The last day of the 99th year of the 1st century was 31 December 99.
6. The last day of the 1st century was 31 December 100.
7. The last day of the 2nd century was 31 December 200.
9. The last day of the 20th century was 31 December 2000.
10. The first day of the 21st century was 1 January 2001.
Is it really THAT hard to understand?

(Monday, 23 June 2014)

Friday, 29 May 2015

Fingerprints of The Gods (by Graham Hancock)

My rating: 10/10

The cover says that it's a new edition of the book, but in fact the “40,000 word update” is contained just in a new introduction and three appendixes to the book. The main book remained totally unchanged, which was a very wise decision by Hancock.

My review is for the main book, so it suits the first edition of the book too. From the new content it's worth to read the new introduction first, but it's not really crucial.

Fingerprints of The Gods is a fascinating book. Utterly fascinating.

The book is VERY long – 534 pages of rather big format, so it's impossible to even mention all the things Graham Hancock writes about. I will point out the most interesting things and characteristics of the book.

1. Real mysteries.
There are maaany mysteries hidden behind physically existing stone structures scattered all around the world. The sheer existence of these HUGE structures is a mystery on its own. And Hancock describes most of such structures in one book!

2. Very old tales.
Graham Hancock cites the most intriguing parts from many very old tales (mostly from South America, Central America, Egypt and Middle East) that describe history that was considered “ancient” even when they were written down (or re-written from even older texts). At this point I have to point out that I am a religious person (Latin/Roman Catholic) and to me it was really interesting to read about tales from other continents that describe a world-spanning deluge in a very similar way to the way it is described in The Holy Bible.

3. Very old maps.
I've heard about one very old map of ice-free Antarctica, but it was hotly debated. It turns out that there are numerous other such maps AND there are also some VERY old maps of different parts of the world that are VERY accurate.

4. Ancient history CANNOT “be proven”!
What pisses me off in any person (scientific or not) is when he (or she) claims that somebody “proved” that ancient history looked “this and this”. Morons. Ancient history by definition can't be proven and it can be described only in a form of a theory – we don't have time machines to go back and see ourselves how the world looked in the very distant past. It's all speculation. More or less probable, but still just speculation.
In this regard Hancock is waaay above some renowned historians or palaeontologists. He doesn't claim that theories preferred by him are 100% correct just because he agrees with them, even if there is some evidence backing them up. He doesn't claim that other theories are wrong, but he says that some of them MAY be wrong. I think that this is the right way to handle ancient history and that such an approach should be used by ALL historians and palaeontologists. Because of that I have a great respect for Hancock.

5. Insane amount of references to other works.
This book is NOT about Hancock's theories and this is the reason I wrote “theories preferred by him” and not “his theories”. It's more about many theories of different people that are joined together by Hancock. And Hancock pays respect to all those people. Moreover, many references concern not theories, but facts or legends that Hancock found in other books. The amount of work that was done by Hancock is HUGE.

6. Radiocarbon dating CANNOT be used to determine the age of STONES!
This topic is covered in detail in the new content and to lesser extent in the book itself, but I have to point it out. Radiocarbon dating can be used to determine the age of ORGANIC material. The fact that some organic material was found on a stone structure doesn't mean that the stone structure itself was of the same age. In reality the stone structure MAY be immensely older then the organic material.

Fingerprints of The Gods is a real treasure, believe me.

Here are some quotes (without in-quote references) that I find very interesting. They are only the tip of an iceberg of interesting things to be found in this book. The first part connects to some very old maps that contain surprisingly precise latitudes AND longitudes. The rest is mostly about ancient South and Central America with some references to ancient Egypt. Enjoy!

    Latitude north or south of the equator did not pose such a problem: it could be worked out by means of angular measurements of the sun and stars taken with relatively simple instruments. But to find longitude equipment of an altogether different and superior calibre was needed, which could combine position measurements with time measurements. Throughout the span of known history the invention of such equipment had remained beyond the capacities of scientists, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century, with rapidly increasing sea traffic, a mood of impatience and urgency had set in. In the words of an authority on the period, ‘The search for longitude overshadowed the life of every man afloat, and the safety of every ship and cargo. Accurate measurement seemed an impossible dream and “discovering the longitude” had become a stock phrase in the press like “pigs might fly”.’
    What was needed, above all else, was an instrument that would keep the time (at the place of departure) with perfect accuracy during long sea journeys despite the motion of the ship and despite the adverse conditions of alternating heat and cold, wet and dry. ‘Such a Watch’, as Isaac Newton told the members of the British government’s official Board of Longitude in 1714, ‘hath not yet been made’.
    Indeed not. The timepieces of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were crude devices which typically lost or gained as much as a quarter of an hour per day. By contrast, an effective marine chronometer could afford to lose or gain that much only over several years.
    It was not until the 1720s that the talented English clockmaker John Harrison began work on the first of a series of designs which resulted in the manufacture of such a chronometer. His objective was to win the prize of £20,000 offered by the Board of Longitude ‘for the inventor of any means of determining a ship’s longitude within 30 nautical miles at the end of a six weeks’ voyage’. A chronometer capable of fulfilling this condition would have to keep time to within three seconds per day. It took almost forty years, during which several prototypes were completed and tested, before Harrison was able to meet these standards. Finally, in 1761, his elegant Chronometer No. 4 left Britain on board HMS Deptford bound for Jamaica, accompanied by Harrison’s son William. Nine days into the voyage, on the basis of longitude calculations made possible by the chronometer, William advised the captain that they would sight the Madeira Islands the following morning. The captain offered five to one that he was wrong but agreed to hold the course. William won the bet. Two months later, at Jamaica, the instrument was found to have lost just five seconds.

    The same appeared to be true of the highly developed system of roads connecting the far-flung parts of the Inca empire. The reader will recall that these roads took the form of parallel highways running north to south, one along the coast and the other through the Andes. All in all more than 15,000 miles of surfaced tracks had been in regular and efficient use before the time of the Spanish conquest, and I had assumed that the Incas had been responsible for all of them. I now learned that it was much more likely that they had inherited the system. Their role had been to restore, maintain and unify a pre-existing network. Indeed, though it was not often admitted, no expert could safely estimate how old these incredible highways were or who had built them.
    The mystery was deepened by local traditions which stated not only that the road system and the sophisticated architecture had been ‘ancient in the time of the Incas’, but that both ‘were the work of white, auburn haired men’ who had lived thousands of years earlier.
    One legend described Viracocha as being accompanied by ‘messengers’ of two kinds, ‘faithful soldiers’ (huaminca) and ‘shining ones’ (hayhuaypanti). Their role was to carry their lord’s message ‘to every part of the world’.

    Garcilaso also reported something else interesting. In his Royal Commentaries of the Incas he gave an account of how, in historical times, an Inca king had tried to emulate the achievements of his predecessors who had built Sacsayhuaman. The attempt had involved bringing just one immense boulder from several miles away to add to the existing fortifications: ‘This boulder was hauled across the mountain by more than 20,000 Indians, going up and down very steep hills ... At a certain spot, it fell from their hands over a precipice crushing more than 3000 men.’ In all the histories I surveyed, this was the only report which described the Incas actually building, or trying to build, with huge blocks like those employed at Sacsayhuaman. The report suggested that they possessed no experience of the techniques involved and that their attempt had ended in disaster.
    This, of course, proved nothing in itself. But Garcilaso’s story did intensify my doubts about the great fortifications which towered above me. As I looked at them I felt that they could, indeed, have been erected before the age of the Incas and by some infinitely older and more technically advanced race.
    Not for the first time I was reminded of how difficult archaeologists found it to provide accurate dates for engineering works like roads and drystone walls which contained no organic compounds. Radiocarbon was redundant in such circumstances; thermo-luminescence, too, was useless. And while promising new tests such as Chlorine-36 rock-exposure dating were now being developed their implementation was still some way off. Pending further advances in the latter field, therefore, ‘expert’ chronology was still largely the result of guesswork and subjective assumptions. Since it was known that the Incas had made intensive use of Sacsayhuaman I could easily understand why it had been assumed that they had built it. But there was no obvious or necessary connection between these two propositions. The Incas could just as well have found the structures already in place and moved into them.
    If so, who had the original builders been?
    The Viracochas, said the ancient myths, the bearded, white-skinned strangers, the ‘shining ones’, the ‘faithful soldiers.’
    As we travelled I continued to study the accounts of the Spanish adventurers and ethnographers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who had faithfully recorded the ancient, pre-contact traditions of the Peruvian Indians. What was particularly noticeable about these traditions was the repeated emphasis that the coming of the Viracochas had been associated with a terrible deluge which had overwhelmed the earth and destroyed the greater part of humanity.

    There are curious parallels here to the story of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian high god of death and resurrection. The fullest account of the original myth defining this mysterious figure is given by Plutarch and says that, after bringing the gifts of civilization to his people, teaching them all manner of useful skills, abolishing cannibalism and human sacrifice, and providing them with their first legal code, Osiris left Egypt and travelled about the world to spread the benefits of civilization to other nations as well. He never forced the barbarians he encountered to accept his laws, preferring instead to argue with them and to appeal to their reason. It is also recorded that he passed on his teachings to them by means of hymns and songs accompanied by musical instruments.

    Like some long-lost twin of Viracocha, the white and bearded Andean deity, Quetzalcoatl was depicted as having brought to Mexico all the skills and sciences necessary to create a civilized life, thus ushering in a golden age. He was believed, for example, to have introduced the knowledge of writing to Central America, to have invented the calendar, and to have been a master builder who taught the people the secrets of masonry and architecture.
    He was the father of mathematics, metallurgy, and astronomy and was said to have ‘measured the earth’. He also founded productive agriculture, and was reported to have discovered and introduced corn – literally the staff of life in these ancient lands. A great doctor and master of medicines, he was the patron of healers and diviners ‘and disclosed to the people the mysteries of the properties of plants’. In addition, he was revered as a lawgiver, as a protector of craftsmen, and as a patron of all the arts.
    As might be expected of such a refined and cultured individual he forbade the grisly practice of human sacrifice during the period of his ascendancy in Mexico. After his departure the blood-spattered rituals were reintroduced with a vengeance. Nevertheless, even the Aztecs, the most vehement sacrificers ever to have existed in the long history of Central America, remembered ‘the time of Quetzalcoatl’ with a kind of nostalgia. ‘He was a teacher,’ recalled one legend, ‘who taught that no living thing was to be harmed and that sacrifices were to be made not of human beings but of birds and butterflies.
    Why did Quetzalcoatl go away? What went wrong?
    Mexican legends provided answers to these questions. They said that the enlightened and benevolent rule of the Plumed Serpent had been brought to an end by Tezcatilpoca, a malevolent god whose name meant ‘Smoking Mirror’ and whose cult demanded human sacrifice. It seemed that a near-cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness had taken place in Ancient Mexico, and that the forces of darkness had triumphed ...
    The supposed stage for these events, now known as Tula, was not believed to be particularly old – not much more than 1000 years anyway – but the legends surrounding it linked it to an infinitely more distant epoch. In those times, outside history, it had been known as Tollan. All the traditions agreed that it had been at Tollan that Tezcatilpoca had vanquished Quetzalcoatl and forced him to quit Mexico.

    Thus Central American traditions collected in the sixteenth century by Father Bernardino de Sahagun gave eloquent expression to a widespread belief that Teotihuacan had fulfilled at least one specific and important religious function in ancient times. According to these legends the City of the Gods was so known because ‘the Lords therein buried, after their deaths, did not perish but turned into gods ...’. In other words, it was ‘the place where men became gods’. It was additionally known as ‘the place of those who had the road of the gods’, and ‘the place where gods were made’.
    Was it a coincidence, I wondered, that this seemed to have been the religious purpose of the three pyramids at Giza? The archaic hieroglyphs of the Pyramid Texts, the oldest coherent body of writing in the world, left little room for doubt that the ultimate objective of the rituals carried out within those colossal structures was to bring about the deceased pharaoh’s transfiguration – to ‘throw open the doors of the firmament and to make a road’ so that he might ‘ascend into the company of the gods’.
    The notion of pyramids as devices designed (presumably in some metaphysical sense) ‘to turn men into gods’ was, it seemed to me, too idiosyncratic and peculiar to have been arrived at independently in both Ancient Egypt and Mexico. So, too, was the idea of using the layout of sacred sites to incorporate a celestial plan.

    How far and how widely across the myth memories of mankind do the ripples of the great flood spread?
    Very widely indeed. More than 500 deluge legends are known around the world and, in a survey of 86 of these (20 Asiatic, 3 European, 7 African, 46 American and 10 from Australia and the Pacific), the specialist researcher Dr Richard Andree concluded that 62 were entirely independent of the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.
    For example, early Jesuit scholars who were among the first Europeans to visit China had the opportunity in the Imperial Library to study a vast work, consisting of 4320 volumes, said to have been handed down from ancient times and to contain ‘all knowledge’. This great book included a number of traditions which told of the consequences that followed ‘when mankind rebelled against the high gods and the system of the universe fell into disorder’: ‘The planets altered their courses. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon and stars changed their motions. The earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.’
    In the Malaysian tropical forest the Chewong people believe that every so often their own world, which they call Earth Seven, turns upside down so that everything is flooded and destroyed. However, through the agency of the Creator God Tohan, the flat new surface of what had previously been the underside of Earth Seven is moulded into mountains, valleys and plains. New trees are planted, and new humans born.

(Saturday, 23 January 2016)

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Magicians of The Gods (by Graham Hancock)

(Originally posted on Saturday, 3 September 2016)

My rating: 7/10

Magicians of The Gods is clearly weaker than Fingerprints of The Gods, but it is still a good (solid) book. I reviewed Fingerprints of The Gods here:
Fingerprints of The Gods (by Graham Hancock)

What’s good (in the Magicians of The Gods):
1. A very good description of a comet-impact theory.
This part gives a detailed description of the theory from 1923 by J. Harlen Bretz that the Channeled Scablands (in the North-West USA) are the result of a vicious flooding, together with a detailed description of the most recent findings that suggest that this flooding was caused by a comet that hit the ice-cap in the North America around the year 10,800 BC. Very interesting and believable stuff, really.
2. Interesting info about some ancient stone structures that were not described in Fingerprints of The Gods, most notably about Gobekli Tepe, Gunung Padang and Baalbek Ruins.
3. New very interesting info about ancient stone structures in Sacsayhuaman that were also described in Fingerprints of The Gods.
4. Many high-quality photos.

What’s bad:
1. Some parts are too long and/or are disjointed.
Some parts of the book could have been definitely shorter. Even the part about the comet-impact theory mentioned above drags a little. Moreover some things are unnecessarily split into different chapters placed in different parts of the book.
2. Some other interesting places introduced for the forst time (most notably Pisac and Cutimbo) are described too shortly.
3. The sets of photos could have been better.
For example, I was much more awestruck by the photos of Pisac I found on the Internet than by the ones I found in the book. It seems that Hancock published the photos that he preferred, but it would be much better if he simply published more photos of the sites he mentioned in the book.
4. The description of the Gobekli Tepe.
Hancock focuses too much on just one stone pillar and even though this pillar is actually very interesting I wish he would describe some other pillars more thoroughly. What’s worse he states that the whole site has “a very definite northwest to southeast orientation”, but gives absolutely NO explanation why he (or the original source of this opinion) thinks so. Yes, there is a picture of the site with an arrow drawn through it, but it does NOT prove anything. To me the orientation of the whole site is far from definite and the orientation of the enclosure D (with Hancock's pet pillar) is rather north to south.
5. Questionable theory about a warning of another comet-impact given by a lost civilization. Why did an advanced civilization (destroyed by a global cataclysm) choose to give a message (in a form of a stone pillars) without picturing what will actually happen? It would be very easy to show a comet hitting the Earth, right? Hancock’s pet pillar only points out to our times (if the theory is correct at all), but it does not show anything more.
6. A trap of ancient history.
While reading this book I fell into a “trap of ancient history” – I was trying to compare different legends from different ancient history texts, basing my work also on the things that can be found on the Internet. What a waste of my time! Please, answer yourself these questions before you start trying to build an image of the ancient times:
1) How long would be a precise history book about your country’s last 10 years? Last 100 years? Last 1000 years?
2) How precise would be a description of the most important moment in the history of your country if it were written in a couple of sentences? On a couple of stone tablets? On a couple of paper pages? How much context can you precisely describe in such small volumes? 3) How precisely can you write using hieroglyphs, pictograms or other symbols? How precisely can you interpret them after thousands of years? How precisely can you translate a text written in a language that nobody uses anymore?
I think that there is a seed of truth in most of the ancient history texts, but we should be always open to a possibility that over time, a very looong time, some things have got blurred, twisted and misunderstood. This is something inevitable. And there is no way of objectively judging which parts got twisted and which did not. Trying to build a DEFINITE image of the ancient times is always dubious and hence the waste of time. Interestingly I didn't fall into this trap when I was reading Fingerprints of The Gods.
7. Hancock himself became a little LESS open-minded.
Hancock states some things in a very arbitrary way, unlike he did it in Fingerprints of The Gods. Reading Fingerprints of The Gods was a real pleasure because Hancock described things and just pointed out different interpretations of them, constantly reminding that ANY theory may be right. In Magicians of The Gods at some moments (thankfully only at some moments) he seems to be only pretending that he has any doubts about correctness of his own opinions. I didn't like that.
8. Hancock stubbornly sticks to his pet theory.
Hancock’s pet theory is that there was an advanced civilization that had developed ON ITS OWN on Earth and it was the lone survivors of this civilization (destroyed by a global cataclysm) who were perceived by hunter-gatherers almost as gods. This theory is debatable on its own and I simply ignored it when I was reading Fingerprints of The Gods. In Magicians of The Gods Hancock gives some additional, very questionable “examples” that his theory may be correct. The most striking example is that he invokes the Book of Enoch. According to the Book of Genesis from the Holy Bible Enoch is the only person from that time who didn't die on Earth but “God took him”. Before that Enoch lived 365 years, much LESS than other people mentioned in the book of Genesis. Anyway, the Book of Enoch is NOT a part of the Holy Bible, for whatever reason, but in this book there are “sons of heaven” too (who “descended on the summit of Mount Hermon”). If they, as Hancock suggest, flew just from another part of the Earth (in a plane or something) then why the ancient history texts don’t point that out? Or why did the “sons of heaven” hide it? The way it is written down it seems that they came out of nowhere – from “outside” the Earth. Similarly to the Holy Bible and to the Book of Enoch, there are also some other ancient texts, including the Sumerian texts, that suggest that there was “a sky god” and that “gods created people”. So, most of the ancient texts suggest that human civilization had NOT developed on its own. Hancock sticks to his theory that is contradictory to most of the other theories. Yes, he has the right to do it – we don't have time machines to verify ANY theory about the ancient history, but in my opinion his theory is rather weak.
9. Hancock is clearly biased against both Christianity and Judaism.
Among other things Hancock uses this outrageous epithet: ”new fanatical, exclusivist religion of Christianity”. Such without-a-doubt kind of statements are totally unacceptable to me. First of all it’s not a religion that is fanatical but people doing fanatical things in the name of the religion. Second of all Christianity has always been a religion of peace and tolerance – the antonyms of fanaticism – the New Testament leaves no doubts about it. In every religion there are some people who are fanatical, but it doesn't make a religion fanatical by default. There is a HUGE difference between such expressions and Hancock should be more careful when writing about such things. Once again: a religion should NOT be blamed for people's sins.
Here’s another “gem” from Hancock:
“It has long been recognized by scholars that the Biblical Flood narration is not original to the Old Testament but was borrowed from a much earlier source (…) – ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia ( …)”.
I hate that Hancock questions the definite opinions of “mainstream scholars” in most parts of his books and blindly accepts their definite opinion in this case. Pathetic. After all, isn't it narrow-minded not to realise that ancient history could have been recorded and passed from generation to generation independently in different cultures? How can anybody be 100% sure that one culture “borrowed” an ancient history from another? And what about all the detailed things that are written in the Old Testament that are missing form ancient Sumer texts? There is no 100%-sure explanation to all the questions connected with ancient texts, so NOBODY should make definite statements on such topics.

Some books (and some other things too) seem to be truly inspired. Fingerprints of The Gods is this kind of book – it gave me the feeling of an adventure, as if I were actually sight-seeing all those places (many places) myself. Magicians of The Gods is not this kind of book, but I still rate it as a good (solid) book. There are some really interesting things in this book, but it could have been better and more measured.

Below there are interesting quotes (without in-quote references). There are only a few of them because I don't have time to quote more.

    Randall doesn't buy the gradualist theory that multiple emptyings of Lake Missoula through multiple breakings and remakings and breaking again of its ice dam can account for the evidence on the ground. He doesn't dispute that the glacial lake existed, or that there were outburst floods from it, but he's convinced it was never anywhere near big enough to account for all the cataclysmic features Channeled Scablands. Like J Harlen Bretz in the 1920s, he believes that one sudden, short-lived, totally exceptional flood of truly immense proportions was the real culprit.

    And the team is growing. As I complete this chapter in March 2015, I have before me on my desk the latest paper published by Firestone, Kennett and West. The paper, entitled “Nanodiamond-Rich Layer across Three Continents Consistent with Major Cosmic Impact 12,800 Years Ago”, appears in the September 2014 issue of The Journal of Geology. The lead author is Carles R. Kinzie of the Departament of Chemistry, DePaul University, Chicago. Firestone, Kennett, West and twenty-two other leading scientists from prestigious universities and research institutes around the world are co-authors. The gravity of the paper, of its authors and of the journal in which it appears, together with the further detailed refutations it contains of prior critiques, combine to make a laughing stock of (…)'s claim that the Younger Dryas comet hypothesis is “fringe science”.

    (…) the Popol Vuh, an original document of the ancient Quiche Maya of Guatemala, based on pre-conquest sources, also speaks of a flood and associates it with “much hail, black rain and mist, and indescribable cold”. It says, (…), that this was a period when “it was cloudy and twilight all over the world … The faces of the sun and the moon were covered”. Other Maya sources confirm that these strange and terrible phenomena were experienced by mankind “in the time of the ancient. The earth darkened … It happened that the sun was still bright and clear. Then, at midday, it got dark …” Sunlight was not seen again “until the twenty-sixth year after the flood”.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Vivero Letter (by Desmond Bagley)

Obviously a cover for an omnibus edition of two separate novels has to be some kind of compromise. Please compare it to the cover of the edition I had read as a teenager (I still have the book). The cover is a little misleading (there are rifles and shotguns in the novel rather than mashine guns), but it's cool anyway.

My rating: 9/10

The Vivero Letter has a special place in my heart. From what I remember it was the first adult book I have bought. I had read most of Alistair MacLean novels before that, but they were not mine. The Vivero Letter was mine.

I must admit that as a teenager I felt that the first half of the book was weak and the second half was superb. As an adult I must say that Desmond Bagley created a unique build-up of tension before the final showdown, but the very start and the strong threads about personal relationships later in the novel can be particularly incomprehensible or/and annoying to younger readers.

Desmond Bagley took some time to develop the story, but the main plot required such an approach. Now (as an adult) I liked the first half of the book much more, because it shows that it is not possible to jump from one archaeological discovery (the Vivero letter itself) right to another even bigger discovery in the middle of the Yucatan jungle. It takes patience. It takes lots of scientific research. It takes logistic preparation. It takes luck. And it takes a lot of work to clear a tiny part of a jungle for a chopper to land. Cool stuff, really.

The Vivero letter itself is awesome. Bagley imagined a great story happening around 1530, during Spanish attemp to defeat Mayas (after the rout of Aztecs). I don’t want to spoil it, so I can’t write anything more, except that it connects to a Maya deity called Kukulkan. I must also point out that at first I thought that Bagley was not really well prepared about Yucatan and its natural resources, but everything was explained later in the novel. Great work by Bagley!

There are lots of interesting (and true) info about Yucatan penisula. For example there is not a single river on the whole penisula and the biggest danger for explorers is the lack of drinking water. However, it doesn't stop the jungle from being VERY thick.

The main character (meaning you – the novel is written in first person narration) is a good scuba-diver and I have learned lots about deep-water diving. The action about scuba-diving in a cenote – a huge round natural well in the middle of the Yucatan jungle – is very climatic.

The Vivero Letter is an exceptional novel that suits my taste almost perfectly. The very start is a little too slow, even though there is a murder several pages into the book. That’s why my rating is “only” very good.

PS. I have searched the net for Kukulkan and the Maya civilization and I found some very interesting things.

Kukulkan (Maya deity) is very similar to Quetzalcoatl (Aztec deity). In each case there was a real person bearing the same name, who is believed to have caused a migration of his people. I didn't find much about real-person Kukulkan, but here's a very interesting quote from Wikipedia about real-person Topiltzin Cē Ācatl Quetzalcōatl:

“He assumed lordship over the Toltecs and migrated his people to Tollan. Reigning in peace and prosperity he contributed much to the lifestyle of the Toltecs with basic ideas such as civilization. He was generally considered a god upon earth by his followers with similar powers to those of his namesake. According to legend, the most accepted fate of the god was that he migrated to Tlapallan where he either died or would rest forever.

He dispelled the traditions of the past and ended all human sacrifice during his reign. The translations claim that he loved his people so much he insisted that they only meet the ancient standards of the gods; he had the Toltec offer them snakes, birds and other animals, but not humans, as sacrifices. (...) It also demanded that all priests remain celibate and did not allow intoxication of any kind (...). These edicts and his personal purity of spirit caused Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl to be beloved by his vassals and revered for generations.”

(Saturday, 11 October 2014)