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The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told! [Paperback]

Henry Gee

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Book Description

Nov. 2 2004 1593600232 978-1593600235
Henry Gee, Senior editor for what many have called the most important magazine in science today - Nature - has written a spellbinding, fun, and accessible book explaining the scientific basis for how all that wizardy, sorcery, and magic really works in JRR Tolkien's fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings and his other fictional books featuring Middle-earth. The author explores just how elves might be able to see much further than humans, why Frodo's sword turns blue at the sight of evil orcs, how the rings of power do their thing, and just about every other conundrum or piece of 'elvish magic' that have puzzled and delighted Tolkien fans for years. Throughout, Gee makes the point that science, fantasy , and nature are really more similar than one might think. Gee writes in a popular tone and style, fully explaining all science concepts and convincingly demonstrating how Tolkien's world of fantasy makes sense in a very real - scientific - way.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Cold Spring Press (Nov. 2 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1593600232
  • ISBN-13: 978-1593600235
  • Product Dimensions: 21.9 x 14.2 x 1.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,555,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The physics is not very good.... May 20 2006
By Neal J. King - Published on
I think Gee deserves some credit for trying to imagine explanations for the phenomena of Tolkien's world, but unfortunately he seems to have spent more time lining up promoters of his book (lots of back-slappers in the early pages) than reviewers, at least of the physics. I would have thought that an editor at Nature would have a few contacts willing to spend a few hours looking for bloopers.

Here are the ones I noticed:
- In "The Eyes of Legolas Greenleaf", Gee discusses the difference in visual capabilities between elvish eyes and human eyes, as revealed in a few incidents of the LoR. Most of this is interesting. It is a bit flawed by his mistake that the way to explain the difference between human and elvish visual acuity is in the difference in FOCAL LENGTH. He asserts that the focal length of elvish eyes must be greater than that of human eyes, in order to give greater magnification. However, if this were true, elvish eyes would have to larger (longer) by a factor of about 12x60/8 = 90, and so would elvish heads. This would really distort the story! A more promising place to look would be in a greater density of rods & cones in the eye, although a factor of 90 is still pretty challenging.

- "In the Laboratory of Feanor", Gee speculates that the mechanism of the Palantiri (crystal balls for remote viewing & communication) could be explained by quantum entanglement: a remote linkage among the Palantiri which causes each one of them to reflect the state of the others. It sounds really cute, but unfortunately it is too cute: It is one of the interesting facts about quantum entanglement that it can be used to correlate statistical results at two ends, but that this correlation can only be verified after the data are brought together. Quantum entanglement cannot be used to send information (such as a signal): if it could, this would enable a violation of causality, within the context of special relativity, TODAY, even before anyone gets around to making crystal balls out of it!

Actually, I don't know why Gee is working so hard on this one: Given that we have telecommunications devices today, and long-life batteries, it is not much of a stretch to imagine a technology that would carry signals for Palantiri. The main issue seems to be the user interface: How do I impose my will on its display? Quantum entanglement won't help on that, either.

- As Jay Moore points out in another review, there is a problem in "Giant Spiders and 'Mammoth' Oliphaunts": I think the source of the problem is that Gee's using M to denote mass when he's thinking about size, which should be proportional to the 3rd-root of mass. But he's not consistent, so it screws up all his equations. Anyway, his argument on metabolism is generally unclear: He should have looked at D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form" to find out how to do these sorts of calculations intelligibly.

Basically, Gee's background seems to be in evolutionary zoology, not in physics, so one should perhaps be a bit forgiving about mistakes. However, as someone well-connected in the realm of scientific writing, he should not have too many difficulties in finding someone more competent to spend a few hours to find mistakes at this level; so one should not be TOO forgiving!

Oh, well, it's still fun. The single best section, in my opinion, is the attempt to explain how mithril could be so light and still be able to hold back the spear of a troll. An obvious omission would be some speculation on the nature of the capabilities of the wizards: Are they purely supernatural, or is some technological component worth considering? Of course, we know that Saruman had technological interests - but what about Gandalf?
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Factual errors spoil the fun May 12 2005
By Jay Moore - Published on
That the author of this book is also an editor for the journal Nature is quite disturbing given the many factually wrong statements he makes. Most egregious is a mathematical blunder that claims M squared divided by M cubed equals M to the two-thirds power ( M^2/M^3=M^(2/3) ); he should have learned in eighth grade that the proper equivalence is 1/M. A close second is the statement that the african elephant is the "largest mammal alive today," forgetting that the blue whale is an order of magnitude larger; "largest land mammal" is the correct statement. This is both bad science and bad editing, quite frightful as the output of a science editor. In areas such as optics where I know a great deal, I found other similar factual problems, which cast great doubt in my mind about the validity of his statements in areas such as the life sciences where I know much less.

Better done, this could have been quite a good book. It must, of course, be read in the proper spirit. The point is not to find the real-world science Tolkein used to order his world (since he clearly did not do so), but to play a fun game of matching up current scientific knowledge to phenomena in Middle-Earth. That the author often gets the science wrong, however, largely spoils the game.

If you are still undeterred and wish to try it for yourself, I recommend skimming or skipping entirely the frst few chapters, which are bafflingly irrelevant.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars CAN BALROGS FLY? Feb. 25 2005
By charles falk - Published on
Only hard-core Tolkien fans will enjoy this book in its entirety, but it nevertheless offers useful insights into Tolkien's writing and the factors that influenced it.

Gee, a senior editor of Nature, rejects the notion that Tolkien was a Luddite. He says Tolkien distinguished between benign science and science put to perverse uses, i.e. to achieve power over others. In his view, Tolkien's academic discipline, philology,was as rigorous as the sciences. Gee demonstrates that Tolkien was conversant with contemporary scientific thought and was a reader of early science fiction writers like H G Wells and John Wyndham.

Gee devotes most of the book to looking at possible scientific explanations for phenomena like the source of a dragon's fire, the composition of mithril, the propagation of orcs, etc. This may be an entertaining parlor game for the initiates, but it is heavy going for the casual reader of Tolkien.

I think Gee's most valuable contribution to our understanding of Tolkien is a literary observation he offers, almost as an afterthought, near the end of the book. He writes about the over-arching "sense of loss" that pervades all of Tolkien's fiction, even in its most triumphal moments. For Tolkien there was no "final" victory, just a series of rearguard struggles that exact a cost on the winners as well as the losers. It is this melancholy leitmotif that elevates Lord of the Rings out of the sword and sorcery genre into the realm of literature.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What if? Dec 13 2012
By Troels Forchhammer - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
In Henry Gee's book, contemporary science and Tolkien's fictional (or, as Tolkien preferred it, sub-creational) writings mix and mingle with both being used to inform the other. The result clearly shows Gee's loving enthusiasm for both topics, and it never bogs down in unnecessary details on either. From discussion of Tolkien's view on science and Tolkien's own role as a scientist of language, the book takes the reader on a journey through Middle-earth where contemporary science is allowed to light the way. I do not agree with Henry Gee in every aspect, but the resulting desire to investigate, to argue and to expend my own creativity in explaining the inexplicable is precisely a part of Henry Gee's most important point: that science is fundamentally creative in nature, and asking such questions as "what if" is what drives science forward.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Matter Over Mind? March 24 2008
By P. G. Wickberg - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found this to be a fun read, and not a very difficult one for somebody who is not a science wonk. However, in addition to the various bloopers pointed out by other reviewers, another one popped up that I found especially egregious. Gee spends a whole chapter on the question of whether or not Balrogs could fly, and seems rather proud of his mathematical proof that their wing size to weight ratio would have to be so great to render them airborne that the Balrog could never have fitted into Moria. But according to Tolkien's own writings, Balrogs were in fact Maiar (minor angels) who had been turned to evil. In other words, they were not made of "normal matter as we know it," any more than H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, another beast who could apparently fly in spite of having small wings on a grossly corpulent body (although, admittedly, we never hear of him actually doing so). When one is assuming a being created of abnormal matter ("fire and shadow", according to Tolkien) all bets are off in terms of scientific theory. How then was Gandulf (himself a Maiar, but one who had voluntarily bound himself in a fana, or physical body) able to kill the Balrog, since chopping away with a sword at a being of alien matter might not be too useful an exercise? Presumably Gandulf killed the Balrog by using magic, the Flame of Anor he mentions possessing, using his sword as a kind of wand, rather than by wounding it with the edge of the sword, in the process taking wounds to his own (physical) body that killed it but not his spirit, which came back in a new and upgraded version (Gandulf 2.0, so to speak).

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