The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told! Paperback – Nov 2 2004
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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?
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.
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.
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