Emperor Nero and the “unteachability of mankind”

the emperor nero barrett jacketAncient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.

There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.

There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?

AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.

There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?

AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.

There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.

Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.

What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?

AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.

Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.

Gendered toys and architectural careers

The numbers don’t add up, according to Despina Stratigakos, author of Where are the Women Architects? 40% of those pursuing a degree in architecture are women, and yet the vast majority of professionals working in the field are male. Why is this? Outside pressure is key, and that begins at a young age.

8498687120_d2703c19cd_z

CC image courtesy of marek szlak on Flickr

It’s no secret that the toys children play with often shape their imaginations and ideals. So what does it mean when one of the biggest known architectural toy brands alters the brand just for girls? Lego is a household name and despite years of knowing that girls are interested in the toys, their website layout features a small ‘girls’ tab, implying that only this selection of toys are intended for girls. The section contains different playsets, with everything from a beauty salon to an airport. But unlike the boys section, which presumably encompasses the rest of the website, all of these toys come with large sections prebuilt and don’t encourage unique construction by the girls.

6691977425_2c69916509_z

CC image courtesy of Bill Ward on Flickr

In her book, Where are the Women Architects?, Stratigakos discusses other girls’ toys that have caused controversy, like Architect Barbie. Though the problem of gendered toys has been widely discussed, no clear solution has presented itself. The fact remains: the “girl friendly” Lego Friends toys offer no real role models outside of the homemaking, beauty, and food industries. None of this bodes well considering the sobering statistics: a professional field that is mostly composed of and caters toward men.

6331018388_4ac13d8e00_z

CC image courtesy of A. C. on Flickr

StratigakosDespina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City.

Language in the age of “search”

digital keywords peters jacketHow does language function in today’s information revolution? Keywords, and these days, “digital keywords” organize research, teaching, even thought itself. In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, Benjamin Peters compiles essays on keywords by major digital media scholars, as well as an extensive list of these keywords themselves. Here’s a look at five words that have completely changed in today’s search-driven culture.

1. “Activism” has become one of the most popular terms found on the internet and it’s nearly decimated the use of “revolution”.

On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms . . . On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.

2. “Archive” is a word that has had its concept completely re-imagined as each person can individually decide what is important to them and should be saved permanently through digital means.

An archive is less about the printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding–even the reader herself.

3. “Cloud” today does not only invoke images of nature, but streams of data held and protected somewhere.

Perhaps it is exactly their apparent blankness, mutability, and vanishing mode of being that makes them such a ripe canvas for human creativity and criticism.

4. “Meme” is an exception in that its meaning hasn’t changed so much as its relevance has. It is a word that was largely ignored when it was first conceived and now is in common use on the internet.

While researchers continue arguing about the usefulness of this construct, netizens have delivered their verdict. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term Meme had become an integral part of online vernacular.

5. “Sharing” is a huge part of media and social relations on computers today, between friends or between millions of people who have never met each other except over the Internet. This concept has challenged concepts about copyright and how criminal activity can be conducted online.

However, while the term data sharing would not appear controversial in any way . . . File sharing . . . is not sharing, but rather theft.

Learn more about Digital Keywords this summer as we share a series of posts from Culture Digitally.

The bright world of fireflies: photographs from Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketCharismatic, admired, and endlessly mysterious, fireflies have long been a source of intrigue. Sara Lewis has spent nearly thirty years examining the lives, surprising habits, and habitats of these beloved and frequently romanticized insects. As Memorial Day weekend winds down and fireflies start to make their debut in summer skies, take a peek inside the new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

 

 

 

Look what we found: Vintage PUP catalogs

You never know what you might accidentally come across at 41 William Street. Recently we unearthed copies of a variety of our older catalogs, dating all the way back to 1914! These vintage covers were a great find, showcasing printing and marketing styles throughout the century and proving just how much has changed design-wise over the years at PUP. Spanning nearly the entire 20th century, the covers past and present were a true buried treasure at the press.

Take a look through the gallery below to see some of the best covers, featuring images from 1914 up to Spring 1998. Do you have a favorite?

 

 

Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Ten weeks, ten states, and a symphony of birdsong

listening to a continent sing kroodsma jacketTake a journey across ten weeks and ten states,  from one coast of America to another, as Donald Kroodsma and his son bike 5,000 miles and record birdsong along the way. In Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Kroodsma  provides a written account of this inspirational adventure that is one part personal memoir, one part guided history, one part invitation to pursue your own dreams. The book is beautifully illustrated, incorporating images of the vast terrain and animals the pair encountered on their trip. QR codes link to audio of birdsong throughout.

Click through to enlarge some of the book’s images here.

8 Perfect Gift Books for Mother’s Day

Still stumped about gifts this Mother’s Day? Princeton University Press offers a great variety of choices for nature lovers, biography buffs, and more. Here are just a few unique ideas.

Cranshaw Jacket

Is your mother a garden lover? Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney Cranshaw is the ultimate book for common insects and mites that can be found in yards or gardens. Whether she’s interested in finding out what has been damaging plants, or simply wants a comprehensive identification guide, this book is a must-have.

bees

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril offers tips for identification and debunks an array of myths about bees. With other 900 full-color photos, as well as tips on how to attract bees to your backyard, there’s no doubt this is a wonderful choice for someone who loves natural history, gardening, and insects.

silent sparks jacket

What could be more magical than fireflies?  Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis is a fitting choice for lovers of beauty, mystery, and the biology behind the scenes. Silent Sparks details why and how fireflies make their light, providing a tour of the different species that span the globe.

offshore sea life howell OffShore Sea ID Guide

No matter which coast your mother loves to visit, there are perfect guides available to help her identify sea life. Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast are both full of beautiful photos to assist in the identification of whales, dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and more. The guide is ideal for beginners and experts alike.

Living on Paper

For the mother who loves to settle down with a good biography, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch is the perfect gift. The book is unique in that it is composed from over 760 of Murdoch’s personal letters, offering unprecedented insight into her life and personality.

Kroodsma

For mothers who love nature, memoirs, or birdsong, Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific is a wonderful option. Author Donald Kroodsma intimately details his journey with his son across the country while they document birdsong.

the fourth pig mitchison jacket

Remind your mother of fairy tales read together, now with a twist. This collection of short stories and poems reimagines well-known tales like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Three Little Pigs”. This updated edition of The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison is an intriguing bridge between childhood favorites and the darker versions adults save for themselves.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.

An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.