Josephine Quinn: The Phoenicians never existed

The Phoenicians traveled the Mediterranean long before the Greeks and Romans, trading, establishing settlements, and refining the art of navigation. But who these legendary sailors really were has long remained a mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn makes the startling claim that the “Phoenicians” never actually existed. Taking readers from the ancient world to today, this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources. Read on to learn more about the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the merchants and long-distance mariners of the ancient Mediterranean. They came from a string of city-states on the coast of the Levant including the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, all in modern Lebanon, and spoke very similar dialects of a language very similar to Hebrew. Their hinterland was mountainous and land connections were difficult even between these neighboring cities themselves, so the Phoenicians were very much people of the sea. They had a particular genius for science and navigation, and as early as the ninth or tenth century BCE, their ships were sailing the full length of the Mediterranean and out through the straits of Gibraltar to do business on the Atlantic coast of Spain, attracted by the precious metals of the west. Levantine migrants and traders began to settle in the Western Mediterranean at least a century before Greeks followed suit, founding new towns in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa. Their biggest Western colony was at Carthage in modern Tunisia, a city which eventually eclipsed the homeland in importance, and under its brilliant general Hannibal vied with Rome for control of the Mediterranean: when Carthage was eventually destroyed by Roman troops in 146 BCE, it was said to be the wealthiest city in the world.

But doesn’t your book suggest that the Phoenicians didn’t even exist?

Not quite! The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories, from the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, who married not one but two warring African kings, to the philosopher Zeno of Kition on Cyprus, who moved to Athens and founded the Stoic school of philosophy. But one of the really intriguing things about them is how little we know about how they saw themselves—and my starting point in this book is that we have no evidence that they saw themselves as a distinct people or as we might say, ethnic group.

“Phoenician” is what the Greeks called these people, but we don’t find anyone using that label to describe themselves before late antiquity, and although scholars have sometimes argued that they called themselves “Canaanite,” a local term, one of the things I show in my book is how weak the evidence for that hypothesis really is. Of course, to say that they didn’t think of themselves as a distinct people just because we don’t have any evidence for them describing themselves as such is an argument from silence, and it could be disproved at any moment with the discovery of a new inscription. But in the meantime, my core argument is when we don’t know whether people thought of themselves as a collective, we shouldn’t simply assume that they did on the basis of ancient or modern parallels, or because ethnic identity seems “natural.”

So how did the Phoenicians see themselves?

This is the question I’m most interested in. Although there is no surviving Phoenician literature that might help us understand the way these people saw the world, Phoenician inscriptions reveal all sorts of interesting and sometimes surprising things that people wanted to record for posterity. They certainly saw themselves as belonging to their own cities, like the Greeks: they were “Byblians,” or “Sidonians,” or “Sons of Tyre.” But one of the things that I suggest in my book is that in inscriptions they present themselves first and foremost in terms of family: where a Greek inscription might give someone’s own name and that of their father, a Phoenician one will often go back several generations—16 or 17 in some cases. And then Phoenician-speaking migrants develop new practices of identification, including regional ones. We see particularly close relationships developing between neighboring settlements in the diaspora, and between people who are from the same part of the homeland. But we also see new, Western identities developing—‘Sardinian,’ for instance—which bring together Phoenicians, Greeks, and the local population.

And I think we can get further by looking at the evidence for cultural practices that Phoenician speakers share—or don’t share. So child sacrifice rituals seem to be limited to a small number of Western settlements around Carthage, but the cult of the god Melqart, the chief civic deity of Tyre, is practiced by people of Levantine origin all over the Mediterranean. And on my interpretation, Melqart’s broad popularity is quite a late development—in the fifth or fourth century BCE—which would suggest that a sense of connectivity between Phoenician-speakers in the diaspora got stronger the longer people had been away from their homeland. But at the same time, the cult reached out to other Mediterranean populations, since Melqart was celebrated by Greeks (and later Romans) as the equivalent of their own god Herakles.

Politics played a part in the construction of identities as well, and this is particularly apparent in one episode where an attempt seems to have been made to impose the notion of ‘being Phoenician’ on other people. By the late fifth century BCE Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and access to ports, taxing defeated enemies, and beginning to acquire overseas territory as well, at the expense of other Levantine diaspora settlements. And at pretty much exactly this time they begin to mint coinage, and their very first coins have an image of a palm tree—or, in Greek, a phoinix, which is also the Greek word for Phoenician. It’s hard to resist the impression that celebrating a common ‘Phoenician’ heritage or identity put a useful political spin on the realities of Carthaginian imperial control.

If there’s so little evidence for genuine Phoenician identity in the ancient world, where does the modern idea of “the Phoenicians” come from?

The name itself comes from the Greeks, as we’ve already said, but they didn’t use it to delineate a specific ethnic or cultural group: for them, “Phoenician” was often a pretty vague and general term for traders and sailors from the Levant, there wasn’t a lot of cultural or ethnic content to it. You don’t get the same kind of detailed ethnographic descriptions of Phoenicians as you do of, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks. And the Romans followed suit: in fact, their particular focus on Carthage meant that the Latin words for “Phoenician”—poenus and punicus—were often used to mean ‘North African’ in general.

It wasn’t until the modern period that the idea of the Phoenicians as a coherent ethnic group fully emerged, in late nineteenth century European histories of Phoenicia that relied heavily on new and specifically European ideas about nationalism and natural cultures. This is when we first find them described as a racial group, with an “ethnic character.” And these notions were picked up enthusiastically in early twentieth century Lebanon, where the idea that the Lebanese had formed a coherent nation since antiquity was an important plank of the intellectual justification for a new Lebanese state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire—another story I tell in the book.

A more recent example of this comes from Anthony D. Smith’s wonderful 1988 book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, which argues that although true nations are a modern phenomenon, they have precursors in ancient and medieval ethno-cultural communities. Among his ancient examples are what he sees as ‘pan-Phoenician sentiments’ based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and, forms of recreation. But my argument is that in the case of the Phoenicians at least we are not dealing with the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but the modern nationalist origins of an ancient ethnicity.

Is there any truth to the stories that the ancient Phoenicians reached America?

I’m afraid not! It’s an old idea: in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe argued, not long after he published Robinson Crusoe, that the Carthaginians must have colonized America on the basis of the similarities he saw between them and the indigenous Americans, in particular in relation to “their idolatrous Customs, Sacrificings, Conjurings, and other barbarous usages in the Worship of their Gods.” But the only real evidence that has ever been proposed for this theory, an inscription “found” in Brazil in 1872, was immediately diagnosed by specialists as a fake.

The idea that Phoenicians got to Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, makes more sense. Cornish tin could certainly have been one attraction. There’s no strong evidence though for Phoenician settlement on either island, though the possibility captivated local intellectuals in the early modern period. One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland, in part as a way of differentiating their own maritime power from the more territorial, and so “Roman,” French empire—at the same time as the Irish constructed a Phoenician past of their own that highlighted the similarity of their predicament under Britain’s imperial yoke to that of noble Carthage oppressed by brutal Rome.

These are of course just earlier stages in the same nationalist ‘invention of the Phoenicians’ that came to fruition in the nineteenth century histories we’ve already discussed: stories about Phoenicians helped the British and the Irish articulate their own national identities, which in turn further articulated the idea of the Phoenicians themselves.

Why did you write this book?

One reason was I really wanted to write a book about the ancient Mediterranean that wasn’t limited to Greece and Rome—though plenty of Greeks and Romans snuck in! But there’s another reason as well: “identity” has been such a popular academic topic in recent decades, and I wanted to explore its limits and even limitations as an approach to the ancient world. There are lots of reasons to think that a focus on ethnic identity, and even self-identity more generally, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that our ideas about the strength and prevalence of ancient ethnic sentiments might be skewed by a few dramatic but unusual examples in places like Israel and perhaps Greece. I wanted to look at a less well-known but perhaps more typical group, to see what happens if we investigate them not as “a people,” but simply as people.

 

QuinnJosephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor of The Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.

 

Miller Oberman: The Grave

The Unstill Ones: Poems by award-winning poet Miller Oberman is an exciting debut collection of original poems and translations from Old English. Check out the author’s translation of The Grave, followed by the poem in Old English and the author’s original poem of the same name. 

A translation of “The Grave”

“The Grave” in Old English

“The Grave” after

“The Grave,” found on folio 170r of MS Bodley 343, is sometimes referred to as the last poem written in Old English, and its final three lines were likely added on later, in Middle English, by a scribe medievalists refer to as “the tremulous hand of Worcester.” While it’s impossible to say whether the shaky writing belonged to “the tremulous hand,” or whether this is indeed the final Old English poem, I like to think both are true.

At a recent reading I heard audible nervous laughter from the audience as I read my translation of “The Grave,” which at first surprised me. I later wondered that it doesn’t happen every time—it’s truly a discomfiting piece of writing, an uncommonly embodied depiction of the physical experience of the grave itself, written from the perspective of within. The poem is haunting it its second person address, as your own grave seems to speak to you: “now you are measured, and the dirt after that.” Simple, declarative, and nearly impossible to argue with, the poem induces the claustrophobia of burial, and the loss of the self and the world.

It’s been crucial for me to hear and say this poem aloud in Old English, to allow its language the life and breath of speech. My translation is fairly literal, but the third reading here, my response to the poem, or my “after” has a different spatial relationship to death, if not to the physicality of the grave. It’s hard to make an argument about “self” to a poem written, memorized, and copied down anonymously a thousand years ago, but the speaker of my poem argues that, even if each grave is inevitable, the sky itself and those who continue to live under it are changed.

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetry magazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in Poetry, London Review of Books, the Nation, Boston Review, Tin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Unstill Ones: Poems.

Sean Fleming: The Water Year in Review

The top five water-related news stories of 2017—and what to expect for 2018

FlemingThe thing about water is that something’s always happening, and the implications of that fact are growing – fast.  What are the top five water-related news stories of 2017?  Read on to see, along with a little context and some implications for next year and beyond.

Oops!  (The Oroville Dam evacuation)

Possibly the most obvious water story of 2017 happened right after the New Year: nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated beneath Oroville Dam as it threatened to fail under record flooding, which in turn ended a historic drought that had cost the state billions of dollars.  Previously of little note to most living outside the region, Oroville is in fact the tallest dam in the US.  It’s located on the Feather River, a headwater basin to the Sacramento River that drains the western slopes of the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the wet, northern part of California.  Oroville Dam is a key component the California State Water Project, shifting water into the California Aqueduct to help irrigate the Central Valley, which produces about 25% of the food consumed in the US, and to transport water to southern Californian urban centers.  Critics charge that in spite of its size and status as a cornerstone of the civil works in a heavily populated but largely arid state where water is everything, dam maintenance and upgrading lagged far behind, setting the stage for problems.  Record rains in February provided the trigger, and the main spillway failed – which might in turn have undermined the dam as a whole, sending the entirety of massive Lake Oroville downstream all at once in a wave of destruction and death.  Disaster was averted, but the costs were tremendous and the risks were real.  For thoughts on improving America’s river infrastructure, see my recent Scientific American post.

Water goes bang on the India-China border

The most exciting, yet perhaps most under-reported water story of 2017 took place on the India-China border.  A military buildup and tense standoff over disputed ownership of a Himalayan frontier area shared by China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India this summer may have cooled off, but India charges that China followed up by using water as a weapon – withholding key data that India needs to manage lethal monsoon flooding on transboundary rivers.  Violent international conflict solely over water is extremely rare because it usually doesn’t work strategically, though it does happen from time to time.  For instance, in 1965, when Syria was building an upstream diversion of a tributary to the River Jordan that would deeply reduce Israel’s water supply – a catastrophe for a desert nation – Israel responded with air strikes against the facility.  And water has been used as a weapon in wars that were being fought for other reasons: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China opened the dikes on the Yellow River in 1938 in an effort to hold back the invading Imperial Japanese army. The action was only partially successful and had a disastrous humanitarian cost.  The soaring mountain ranges wrapping around the Tibetan Plateau – including the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas, spanning China, India, Pakistan, and  several other countries – host one of the world’s largest remaining icefields and are the source of the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Mekong Rivers among others, and thus help provide water to a full quarter of the global human population.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more important for nations to cooperate over water.

Two inter-state water lawsuits go to the US Supreme Court

The volume was turned up in the country’s water wars, with SCOTUS announcing this fall it will hear both Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water rights, and Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over the Apalachicola.  Rivers and aquifers don’t respect borders.  The geophysics of where water comes from and how and where it flows is complex, fascinating, and full of surprises, such as flash floods, alternating drought and flood sequences, and abrupt and catastrophic changes in river channel location.  And those are just the natural aspects – the engineering and management part can be just as complicated for some basins, and a high ratio of demand to supply, as we have in the increasingly heavily populated deserts of the Southwest for instance, exacerbates these issues.  Originating from snowy headwaters in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows south through increasingly arid country and then turns southeastward, forming the US-Mexico border until emptying in the Gulf of Mexico.  Water projects abound on the Rio Grande, and each influences the other in some way.  For example, the San Juan-Chama project diverts water from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande, municipal groundwater pumping in Albuquerque interacts with Rio Grande flows through subterranean geologic pathways, and a series of dams withdraws water from the river for agriculture, reducing what’s left for downstream users.  Water law is complicated.  Texas says New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water; New Mexico says it isn’t.  The potential for disagreement over water will only continue to grow in the Southwest, though there are success stories as well: after some earlier missteps, Las Vegas has invented one of the most advanced and successful water conservation programs around, reportedly reducing its water consumption by almost a quarter over a ten-year period while its population grew by half a million.

Saying goodbye to the Paris Agreement on climate change

Why is climate change important to rivers?  Lots of natural processes and human activities affect how high rivers run and how much water arrives at your tap, and climate variables like precipitation and temperature rank high among these influences.  While the new administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was obviously a setback for action on climate change, it was also a democratic response to widespread sentiment.  And this fact suggests that explaining climate change may be turning into the greatest science communication failure in history.  As scientists, we clearly need to adjust course – but in what direction?  Consider a recent article by a multi-disciplinary team in the respected research journal, Global Environmental Change.  Applying complex network theory (kind of a mathematical formalization of the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon) to social media feeds about climate change, they demonstrated the dominance of so-called echo chambers, and that constructive progress is made only when groups with opposing views actually talk with each other.  Consider also that populism – which is by nature skeptical around the competence and integrity of designated experts – has been growing over the last decade on both the left and right, as evidenced by the mayoralties of Rob Ford in Toronto and Boris Johnson in London, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Brexit, and Bernie and The Donald.  If there is a silver lining to withdrawal from the Paris accords, it’s that it may teach us valuable lessons around communicating about climate change: reach out to people who don’t believe us yet, treat them with respect, and focus on just explaining our science.

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard.  In late August, the fourth largest city in the US, with over 4 million residents counting Harris County, was at the epicenter of what some are saying will be the costliest natural disaster in US history.  Though no hurricane is to be trifled with, why was the flooding so intense in this case?  To be sure, the rainfall generated by this particular storm was unusually heavy.  But risk is, by definition, what you get when you take the probability that something bad will happen (like record rainfall under a hurricane) and multiply it by the impact it will have if it does happen (like flooding and the associated economic cost and human suffering).  In the case of Harvey’s visit to Houston, it had a lot to do with local-scale choices that affected the second part of that equation.  In fact, parts of the greater Houston metropolitan area have seen a spate of floods over the last few years, and they weren’t all associated with huge storms.  The region has experienced an explosion of population growth and urban sprawl.  Lots of residences were built in low-lying, flood-prone areas, which is the single best of way of increasing flood risk.  And urbanization – the conversion of wild or agricultural land to rooftops, parking lots, and roadways – is another powerful flood risk factor.  Soils and wetlands hold on to rainwater for a while, and then gently release it to natural drainage systems like aquifers and rivers.  If you pave and build over these things, their ability to attenuate flooding is removed.  While these effects are particularly noticeable in Houston, and especially so when the city gets hit by a major hurricane, they’re ubiquitous; increased flooding in the UK over the last decade has been attributed to exactly the same causes.

What will 2018 have in store for us?  If we can be sure about one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.  But the larger trends are clear.  Global water demand will increase 55% in the next few decades, urbanization will spread, tens of millions more will congregate in floodplain-located megacities, the climate will subtly but profoundly shift overhead, and cooperation and conflict over water will vie for supremacy.  We can, in short, expect that water stories will make the news with increasing frequency and force.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Monarch butterflies: Out of sight, but not out of mind!

By Anurag Agrawal

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The annual migratory calendar for monarch butterflies in eastern North America.

As winter approaches, monarch butterflies are not in sight for most Americans. Beginning in the fall, hundreds of millions of butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains oriented south and began their migration. And indeed the story of how they navigate is truly remarkable: the little insect uses a sun compass that is adjustable depending on the time of day to find its way. Details of the migration and much more are in Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. And 2017 was a spectacular fall season for monarch butterflies. As far as most monarch biologists can remember, this was perhaps the biggest summer season on record, with monarchs in epic numbers congregating and flying south.

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Southward migrating monarchs in Ontario during autumn. Although monarchs are usually dispersed in the summer, as the fall migration takes hold, butterflies congregate in larger clusters.

As the holiday season approaches, it is useful to keep in to keep in mind where monarchs are and what they are doing.  Cool and concentrated, they huddle en masse for nearly five months.  Will the numbers of butterflies overwintering in Mexico this year show a rebound from their precipitous decline?  If the migration was successful, yes, we all expect (hope!) the numbers to be up.  But only time will tell, as the official numbers are typically announced each February by World Wildlife Fund Mexico.  The monitoring of these unimaginable aggregations of butterflies has been a critical piece in the conservation puzzle for monarchs.

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The state license plate in Michoacán State, Mexico.

In November around the Day of the Dead and leading to American Thanksgiving, monarchs arrive to their overwintering grounds in the highlands Michoacán, Mexico. And legend has it that the butterflies are the returning souls of loved ones. They form clusters that are so dense, they weigh down the Oyamel Fir trees they inhabit above 10,000 feet of elevation in these exquisite sites. The sites are terribly small, with all of them fitting into area smaller than New York City.

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A congregation of monarchs within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most wings are closed, but look for the orange spots of open butterfly wings.

But before 1975, there was no conservation conversation about monarchs, because scientists simply did not know where monarchs went in the winter (of course native Mexicans of the region have known for centuries).  More importantly, we didn’t know how restricted and sensitive their overwintering sites are. The story of how the monarchs were found is too lengthy to recount here, but it is an astonishing story. In short, Professor Urquhart from the University of Toronto was hot on the trail, and knew that they flew south into Mexico during the fall.  Nora and Fred Urquhart marshaled a citizen science campaign that included a massive effort to engage folks far and wide in the search for the overwintering grounds.  In fact, in 1973, they wrote an article in an English language newspaper in Mexico City requesting help in finding the monarch overwintering sites.

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I obtained this reproduction of the original article outlining monarch butterfly biology and requesting help finding the overwintering grounds from the Library of Congress. It came on microfiche and was a treasure to hold and read.

Still, it was another two years before the overwintering colonies were found and reported to the world. After thirty years of tagging butterflies, enlisting thousands of citizen scientists, and much speculation, shortly after new year’s day in January 1975, the great discovery was made. The Urquharts wrote to their thousands of volunteers: “We now wish to announce to our associates, that, after these many years of intensive study, after having tagged thousands of migrants, we have, finally located the exact area where they overwinter, with the very able assistance of Ken Brugger and Cathy Brugger of Mexico City”. And the rest is history.

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

Agrawal

Matthew J. Salganik on Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age

In just the past several years, we have witnessed the birth and rapid spread of social media, mobile phones, and numerous other digital marvels. In addition to changing how we live, these tools enable us to collect and process data about human behavior on a scale never before imaginable, offering entirely new approaches to core questions about social behavior. Bit by Bit is the key to unlocking these powerful methods—a landmark book that will fundamentally change how the next generation of social scientists and data scientists explores the world around us. Matthew Salganik has provided an invaluable resource for social scientists who want to harness the research potential of big data and a must-read for data scientists interested in applying the lessons of social science to tomorrow’s technologies. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Bit by Bit.

Your book begins with a story about something that happened to you in graduate school. Can you talk a bit about that? How did that lead to the book?

That’s right. My dissertation research was about fads, something that social scientists have been studying for about as long as there have been social scientists. But because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I had access to an incredibly powerful tool that my predecessors didn’t: the Internet. For my dissertation, rather than doing an experiment in a laboratory on campus—as many of my predecessors might have—we built a website where people could listen to and download new music. This website allowed us to run an experiment that just wasn’t possible in the past. In my book, I talk more about the scientific findings from that experiment, but while it was happening there was a specific moment that changed me and that directly led to this book. One morning, when I came into my basement office, I discovered that overnight about 100 people from Brazil had participated in my experiment. To me, this was completely shocking. At that time, I had friends running traditional lab experiments, and I knew how hard they had to work to have even 10 people participate. However, with my online experiment, 100 people participated while I was sleeping. Doing your research while you are sleeping might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. Changes in technology—specifically the transition from the analog age to the digital age—mean that we can now collect and analyze social data in new ways. Bit by Bit is about doing social research in these new ways.

Who is this book for?

This book is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interested in the hybrid of these two fields. I spend time with both social scientists and data scientists, and this book is my attempt to bring the ideas from the communities together in a way that avoids the jargon of either community.  

In your talks, I’ve heard that you compare data science to a urinal.  What’s that about?

Well, I compare data science to a very specific, very special urinal: Fountain by the great French artist Marcel Duchamp. To create Fountain, Duchamp had a flash of creativity where he took something that was created for one purpose—going to the bathroom—and turned it a piece of art. But most artists don’t work that way. For example, Michelangelo, didn’t repurpose. When he wanted to create a statue of David, he didn’t look for a piece of marble that kind of looked like David: he spent three years laboring to create his masterpiece. David is not a readymade; it is a custommade.

These two styles—readymades and custommades—roughly map onto styles that can be employed for social research in the digital age. My book has examples of data scientists cleverly repurposing big data sources that were originally created by companies and governments. In other examples, however, social scientists start with a specific question and then used the tools of the digital age to create the data needed to answer that question. When done well, both of these styles can be incredibly powerful. Therefore, I expect that social research in the digital age will involve both readymades and custommades; it will involve both Duchamps and Michelangelos.

Bit by Bit devotes a lot attention to ethics.  Why?

The book provides many of examples of how researchers can use the capabilities of the digital age to conduct exciting and important research. But, in my experience, researchers who wish to take advantage of these new opportunities will confront difficult ethical decisions. In the digital age, researchers—often in collaboration with companies and governments—have increasing power over the lives of participants. By power, I mean the ability to do things to people without their consent or even awareness. For example, researchers can now observe the behavior of millions of people, and researchers can also enroll millions of people in massive experiments. As the power of researchers is increasing, there has not been an equivalent increase in clarity about how that power should be used. In fact, researchers must decide how to exercise their power based on inconsistent and overlapping rules, laws, and norms. This combination of powerful capabilities and vague guidelines can force even well-meaning researchers to grapple with difficult decisions. In the book, I try to provide principles that can help researchers—whether they are in universities, governments, or companies—balance these issues and move forward in a responsible way.

Your book went through an unusual Open Review process in addition to peer review. Tell me about that.

That’s right. This book is about social research in the digital age, so I also wanted to publish it in a digital age way. As soon as I submitted the book manuscript for peer review, I also posted it online for an Open Review during which anyone in the world could read it and annotate it. During this Open Review process dozens of people left hundreds of annotations, and I combined these annotations with the feedback from peer review to produce a final manuscript. I was really happy with the annotations that I received, and they really helped me improve the book.

The Open Review process also allowed us to collect valuable data. Just as the New York Times is tracking which stories get read and for how long, we could see which parts of the book were being read, how people arrived to the book, and which parts of the book were causing people to stop reading.

Finally, the Open Review process helped us get the ideas in the book in front of the largest possible audience. During Open Review, we had readers from all over the world, and we even had a few course adoptions. Also, in addition to posting the manuscript in English, we machine translated it into more than 100 languages, and we saw that these other languages increased our traffic by about 20%.

Was putting your book through Open Review scary?

No, it was exhilarating. Our back-end analytics allowed me see that people from around the world were reading it, and I loved the feedback that I received. Of course, I didn’t agree with all the annotations, but they were offered in a helpful spirit, and, as I said, many of them really improved the book.

Actually, the thing that is really scary to me is putting out a physical book that can’t be changed anymore. I wanted to get as much feedback as possible before the really scary thing happened.

And now you’ve made it easy for other authors to put their manuscripts through Open Review?

Absolutely. With a grant from the Sloan Foundation, we’ve released the Open Review Toolkit. It is open source software that enables authors and publishers to convert book manuscripts into a website that can be used for Open Review. And, as I said, during Open Review, you can receive valuable feedback to help improve your manuscript, feedback that is very complimentary to the feedback from peer review. During Open Review, you can also collect valuable data to help launch your book. Furthermore, all of these good things are happening at the same time that you are increasing access to scientific research, which is a core value of many authors and academic publishers.

SalganikMatthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

John Tutino: Mexico, Mexicans, and the Challenge of Global Capitalism

This piece has been published in collaboration with the History News Network. 

TutinoMexico and Mexicans are in the news these days. The Trump administration demands a wall to keep Mexicans out of “America,” insisting that undocumented immigrants cause unemployment, low wages, and worse north of the border. It presses a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming to defend U.S. workers from the pernicious impacts of a deal said to favor Mexico and its people. Meanwhile U.S. businesses (from autos to agriculture) work to keep the gains they have made in decades of profitable cross-border production and marketing. Their lobbying highlights the profits they make employing Mexicans who earn little (at home and in the U.S.), and by their efforts subsidize U.S. businesses and consumers.

The integration of Mexico and the U.S., their workers and markets, is pivotal to U.S. power, yet problematic to many U.S. voters who feel prejudiced in a world of globalizing capitalism and buy into stereotypes that proclaim invasive Mexicans the cause of so many problems. Analysts of diverse views, including many scholars, often imagine that this all began in the 1990s with NAFTA. A historical survey, however, shows that the integration of North America’s economies began with the U.S. taking rich lands from Texas to California by war in the 1840s, driving the border south to its current location. U.S. capitalists led a westward expansion and turned south to rule railroads, mining, petroleum, and more in Mexico before 1910—while Mexican migrants went north to build railroads, harvest crops, and supply cities in lands once Mexican. The revolution that followed in part reacted to U.S. economic power; its disruptions sent more Mexicans north to work. While Mexico struggled toward national development in the 1920s, displaced families still moved north. When depression stalled the U.S. economy in the 1930s, Mexicans (including many born U.S. citizens) were expelled south. When World War II stimulated both North American economies, the nations contracted to draw Mexican men north to work as braceros. Mexico’s “miracle” growth after 1950 relied on U.S. models, capital, and labor-saving technology—and never created enough work to curtail migrant flows. The Mexican oil boom of the 1970s tapped U.S. funds, aiming to bring down OPEC oil prices to favor U.S. hegemony in a Cold-War world. By the 1980s the U.S. gained cheaper oil, helping re-start its economy. In the same decade, falling oil prices set off a debt fueled depression in Mexico that drove more people north. NAFTA, another Mexican collapse, and soaring migration followed in the 1990s. The history of life and work across the U.S.-Mexican border is long and complex. Through twists and turns it shaped modern Mexico while drawing profits, produce, and Mexicans to the U.S.

The Mexican Heartland takes a long view to explore how communities around Mexico City sustained, shaped, and at times challenged capitalism from its sixteenth century origins to our globalizing times. From the 1550s they fed an economy that sent silver, then the world’s primary money, to fuel trades that linked China, South Asia, Europe, and Africa—before British America began. By the eighteenth century, Mexico City was the richest place in the Americas, financing mines and global trade, sustained by people living in landed communities and laboring at commercial estates. It’s merchant-financiers and landed oligarchs were the richest men in the Americas while the coastal colonies of British America drew small profits sending tobacco to Europe and food to Caribbean plantations (the other American engines of early capitalism).

Then, imperial wars mixed with revolutionary risings to bring a world of change: North American merchants and slave holders escaped British rule after 1776, founding the United States; slaves in Saint Domingue took arms, claimed freedom, destroyed sugar plantations, and ended French rule, making Haiti by 1804; insurgents north of Mexico City took down silver capitalism and Spain’s empire after 1810, founding Mexico in 1821. Amid those conflicts, Britain forged a new industrial world while the U.S. began a rise to continental hegemony, taking lands from native peoples and Mexico to expand cotton and slavery, gain gold and silver, and settle European migrants. Meanwhile, Mexicans struggled to make a nation in a reduced territory while searching for a new economy.

The Mexican Heartland explores how families built lives within capitalism before and after the U.S. rose to power. They sought the best they could get from economies made and remade to profit the few. Grounded in landed communities sanctioned by Spain’s empire, they provided produce and labor to carry silver capitalism. When nineteenth-century liberals denied community land rights, villagers pushed back in long struggles. When land became scarce as new machines curtailed work and income, they joined Zapata in revolution after 1910. They gained land, rebuilt communities, and carried a national development project. Then after 1950, medical capitalism delivered antibiotics that fueled a population explosion while “green revolution” agriculture profited by expanding harvests while making work and income scarce. People without land or work thronged to burgeoning cities and across the border into the U.S., searching for new ways to survive, sustain families, and re-create communities.

Now, Mexicans’ continuing search for sustainable lives and sustaining communities is proclaimed an assault on U.S. power and prosperity. Such claims distract us from the myriad ways that Mexicans feed the profits of global corporations, the prosperity of the U.S. economy, and the comforts of many consumers. Mexicans’ efforts to sustain families and communities have long benefitted capitalism, even as they periodically challenged capitalists and their political allies to keep promises of shared prosperity. Yet many in the U.S. blame Mexico and Mexicans for the insecurities, inequities, and scarce opportunities that mark too many lives under urbanizing global capitalism.

Can a wall can solve problems of dependence and insecurity pervasive on both sides of the border? Or would it lock in inequities and turn neighboring nations proclaiming shared democratic values into ever more coercive police states? Can we dream that those who proclaim the liberating good of democratic capitalism may allow people across North America to pursue secure sustenance, build sustaining communities, and moderate soaring inequities? Such questions define our times and will shape our future. The historic struggles of Mexican communities illuminate the challenges we face—and reveal the power of people who persevere.

John Tutino is professor of history and international affairs and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University. His books include The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 and From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940.

Ya-Wen Lei: Ideological Struggles and China’s Contentious Public Sphere

This post has been republished by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

Lei

Ideology was a critical theme at China’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017. In his speech, President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s “cultural confidence” as well as “Chinese values.” Attempting to import any other kind of political regime, he argued, would fail to match China’s social, historical and cultural conditions. Interestingly, however, at the same time that he rejected foreign political models, Xi promoted China’s particular version of modernization as a valuable model for other countries.

At the domestic level, Xi stressed the importance of controlling ideology, regulating the internet, and actively attacking “false” views within China’s public sphere. For Xi, ideology is a powerful tool that can, at best, unify the Chinese people or, at worst, turn them against the Chinese state.

In fact, ideology has been a priority for Xi ever since he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. This focus is understandable, I argue, precisely given the rising influence of liberal ideology within China’s public sphere.

Let me illustrate this by discussing one example, explored in greater depth in my book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. In Chapter 5, I analyze the political orientation of the top 100 opinion leaders on Weibo—one of China’s most popular social media sites—and the connections among them in 2015.

I classified Weibo opinion leaders into the following categories: political liberals, political conservatives, and others. I defined political liberals as those who express support on Weibo for constitutionalism (government authority derives from and should be limited by the constitution) and universal values (e.g., human rights, freedom, justice, equality), and political conservatives as those who argue against those principles. I classified as “others” those who expressed no views either way. I looked at people’s views on constitutionalism and universal values because these are particularly contested and politicized ideas in China given their association with Western liberal democracy. These are, in short, ideas that would not be popular in China if ideology were functioning “properly” from the government perspective.

Despite the Chinese government’s ideological control and censorship, I found that 58% of the top 100 Weibo opinion leaders in 2015 were political liberals, while only 15% were political conservatives. My analysis looked specifically at January of 2015, after the Chinese government launched its “purge the internet” campaign in August 2013 and arrested several opinion leaders. This was also after the government’s effort to use Weibo to create more “positive energy.” Presumably, then, the percentage of political liberals among opinion leaders might well have been even higher before the Chinese government’s intensified crackdowns.

In the following graph, I map the connections among the top 100 Weibo opinion leaders using social network analysis. Blue, red, and white nodes represent political liberals, political conservatives, and others, respectively. The graph reveals the greater level of influence of political liberals in general online, the dense connections among liberals themselves, and their seemingly greater influence on those who may be “on the fence” politically or simply more cautious about expressing their views of constitutionalism and universal values online. Importantly, political liberals would not have become so popular and influential had it not been for the direct and indirect endorsement of Chinese citizens.

Lei

Figure: Top 100 Weibo opinion leaders. Note: An edge between two opinion leaders is directional, showing that one opinion leader follows the other on Weibo. Blue, red, and white nodes represent political liberals, political conservatives, and others, respectively. Squares, triangles, boxes, diamonds, and circles denote media professionals, lawyers and legal scholars, scholars in non-law disciplines, entrepreneurs, and others, respectively. Gray and black edges show“following” across and between people with the same political orientation, respectively.

In short, the graph reveals a situation that contrasts sharply with the Chinese public sphere the government would like to see. The dissemination of liberal discourse and ideology, as well as growing public criticism of social and political problems in China, has only heightened the Chinese state’s concerns regarding ideology.

So, is ideology even “working” in China—at least in the way Xi would like? If constitutionalism and universal values are Western views that need to be discouraged and even attacked as “false,” this map of online opinion leaders in China suggests the government has its work cut out for it. How this happened, how it has changed China’s public sphere, and whether and how the govenment might attempt to regain ideological control moving foward are all questions I explore futher in my book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.

Ya-Wen Lei is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and an affiliate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.

Eelco J. Rohling on The Oceans: A Deep History

It has often been said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. In fact, we know a great deal more about the oceans than many people realize. Scientists know that our actions today are shaping the oceans and climate of tomorrow—and that if we continue to act recklessly, the consequences will be dire. In this timely and accessible book, Eelco Rohling traces the 4.4 billion-year history of Earth’s oceans while also shedding light on the critical role they play in our planet’s climate system. An invaluable introduction to the cutting-edge science of paleoceanography, The Oceans enables you to make your own informed opinions about the environmental challenges we face as a result of humanity’s unrelenting drive to exploit the world ocean and its vital resources. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Eelco Rohling’s new book.

How/Why did you become a specialist in past ocean and climate change?
When I was a boy, I actually wanted to become a brain surgeon. But I did not pass the lottery to get into medical school when I went to university. So I thought about what else to study for a year before trying again. I ended up doing geology, and never looked back—I pushed on with that instead of trying medical school again. In geology, I developed a fascination with the past environments in which animals and plants lived that we now find as fossils. So after my BSc, I did an MSc with a major in microfossils and palaeo-oceanography/-climatology, supported by minors in sedimentary systems and physical oceanography/climatology. Things started to really come together when I started my PhD project, for which I started to truly integrate these streams in a research context. That’s when my interest in past ocean and climate change became much deeper and more specific.

Why did you choose to write a book about the history of the oceans?
I discussed a few ideas with my editor Eric Henney, and we gradually brought the various ideas together into this book concept. We strongly felt that the vast existing knowledge about the past oceans (and past climate) needed to be better articulated, and placed in context of modern changes in these systems, and in the life that they sustain.

Why do we need to understand the history of the oceans?
The oceans’ past holds many fascinating pieces of information about how the ocean/climate system works, and how it interacts with life and the planet itself. No other field can bring that information to the table. The oceans’ history also holds important clues about how Earth may recover from human impact, and on what timescales such a recovery may be expected. This brings important context to the discussion about modern human impact.

Does the history of the oceans give any relevant information about their future?
Oh, yes. It illustrates the key processes by which carbon-cycle changes have occurred over Earth history, and whet the timescales were for these changes. It also illustrates which processes we might try to accelerate to drive atmospheric carbon-removal on timescales useful to humankind. Moreover, the history of the oceans provides insight into the developments (and extinctions) of life on Earth, which again gives context about the severity and rapidity of current changes on Earth.

Why does a book about the oceans contain so much about climate?
The oceans are an integral part of the climate system. The climate system is a complex beast that spans the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all forms of water), cryosphere (all forms of ice), lithosphere (the rocks), and biosphere (all forms of life, be it living or dead). The oceans are a vital link in all this, and one cannot talk about ocean changes without touching upon climate changes, or the other way around.

The oceans appear to have gone through very large changes in the past. How do the changes cause by humanity compare?
The human-caused changes are large, but not among the largest that have ever happened. But the human-caused changes are unique with respect to the rates of change: modern changes are 10 to 100 times faster than the fastest-ever natural changes any time before humans appeared on the scene. And, also, human-made changes have significant impacts from many different sides: warming, ocean acidification, physical (e.g., plastic) pollution, chemical pollution, eutrophication, overfishing, etc. Natural changes were not that all-encompassing. So modern changes are very scary in relation to the natural changes that have occurred, even when including major extinction events.

Are humans really causing damage to the enormous oceans and the life they contain?
Yes, for sure.Humans have trouble imagining how their (often little) actions can add up over time, and across the massive population numbers. But we’re on this planet with well over 7 billion people, all of whom at least partly rely on the ocean as a key resource for such things as: dumping waste/pollution from plastics to oil and from radioactive materials to chemical waste and fertilizers; transportation (with spillages), food production/fisheries; war-mongering, exploration/mining, energy production, etc. Added up over our massive human population and increasing technical infrastructure, all of these aspects alone have devastating impacts already, but taken together they are heading down a particularly terminal route.

OceansEelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Alexander Thurston on Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

ThurstonBoko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups. It has killed more than twenty thousand people and displaced more than two million in a campaign of terror that began in Nigeria but has since spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon as well. This is the first book to tell the full story of this West African affiliate of the Islamic State, from its beginnings in the early 2000s to its most infamous violence, including the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. In an in-depth account of a group that is menacing Africa’s most populous and richest country, Alexander Thurston also illuminates the dynamics of civil war in Africa and jihadist movements in other parts of the world. Read on to learn more about this deadly terrorist group and what is being done to stop them.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a jihadist group, or rather cluster of groups, that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The group has called itself by various names, and “Boko Haram” is a nickname given by outsiders—it means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” The nickname refers to a central theme that its founder Muhammad Yusuf used in his preaching, namely the idea that Western-style education (and democracy) were anti-Islamic. Boko Haram was involved sporadically in violence before 2009, but its transformation into a sustained insurgency occurred that year, when Yusuf and his followers clashed with authorities. Yusuf was killed during the initial uprising, but his followers regrouped under Abubakar Shekau and began to commit regular assassinations and attacks the next year. Boko Haram began to hold significant amounts of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, which prompted Nigeria’s neighbors to intervene more strongly. In 2015, back on the defensive, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Boko Haram continues to stage attacks in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries, especially Niger. In summer 2016, a public schism emerged in the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Shekau and another following Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, who has pledged to reduce civilian casualties and refocus Boko Haram’s efforts on fighting states and militaries. Boko Haram is most infamous for its mass kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.

How has the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has used a heavy-handed, military-focused approach to Boko Haram. The approach involves serious and systematic human rights violations—extrajudicial killings, collective arrests, detentions without trial, and torture. This approach has itself become a driver of the crisis, antagonizing civilians and reducing their willingness to work with authorities. In some cases, a desire for revenge has even pushed some civilians into joining or working with Boko Haram. Nigerian politicians repeatedly debated and haltingly pursued the idea of dialogue with Boko Haram starting around 2012, but it was not until 2016 that negotiations bore some fruit, resulting in two waves of releases/prisoner swaps of some of the “Chibok girls.” The current president, Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015), has been quite eager to declare Boko Haram defeated, but its attacks continue to trouble the northeastern part of Nigeria.

What are the biggest misperceptions about Boko Haram?

One key misperception is the idea that Boko Haram is a direct consequence of demography, poverty, and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria. That thesis does not explain why Boko Haram emerged in the northeast, rather than elsewhere in the north, nor does it explain why there are not many more movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria’s neighbors, which suffer from many of the same problems. In a related way, many observers continue to believe that Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a nonviolent critic of Nigerian government corruption; in truth, he rejected the entire premise of Nigeria’s secular state, and he flirted with violent jihadism from an early point in his career. By the time Yusuf’s message was fully developed, he was not calling for reform in the existing order, but for a complete overhaul of the system.

Another key misconception, however, is the claim that Boko Haram is merely an extension of the global jihadist movement—that it was created and managed by al-Qaeda, or that it now is merely a branch of the Islamic State. The reality is more complicated; Boko Haram’s early contacts with al-Qaeda were patchy, and al-Qaeda had trouble getting Yusuf and Shekau to follow their advice, so much so that al-Qaeda seems to have broken off contact with Yusuf well before the 2009 uprising, which was a disaster for Boko Haram. Given the flaws in these simplistic hypotheses—the poverty hypothesis or the global jihadism hypothesis—there is a need to develop more complicated understandings of Boko Haram. That’s what my book tries to do.

What are the key arguments of your book?

The main argument is that Boko Haram reflects a complicated intersection of politics and religion in northeastern Nigeria, and that this intersection can only be understood by examining developments at the local level, especially in the city of Maiduguri and the surrounding state of Borno. Political developments that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise included the implementation of “full shari‘a” in northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s, a highly competitive gubernatorial election in Borno in 2003, and bitter memories among northern Muslims regarding intercommunal violence dating back to the 1980s. Religious developments involved a rapidly shifting “religious field” in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf’s rise coincided with new opportunities for young preachers to gain prominence as key scholars in Maiduguri were either aging and passing away, or were absent because they were studying in the Arab world.

Another, related argument is that although Boko Haram horrified and antagonized almost all Muslims in northern Nigeria, it did not come out of nowhere. Boko Haram and Yusuf picked up on ideas that had been circulating for several decades, particularly the idea that Nigeria needed to become an Islamic state, and the idea that Western-style education was undermining the moral fabric of northern Nigerian society.

In what way does religion matter for Boko Haram?

When the relationship between religion and jihadism gets discussed in the media and popular outlets, analysts often focus on the question of whether individuals really believe in what they’re saying—whether jihadists are pious and well-informed about religion, and whether recruits join jihadist groups out of conviction or opportunism. To me, those debates are of limited interest because it’s difficult to get inside the minds and hearts of individuals, and to know what they really believe. So for me, the most important way to think about religion’s role in jihadism is in terms of the “religious field”—the totality of actors and institutions vying to define and shape a religious tradition in a particular setting. Whether or not Boko Haram’s leaders and followers are truly religious and pious, they certainly see themselves as operating in a religious field. Their vocabulary, their propaganda, the leaders’ interactions with followers, and often the targets of their violence all reflect a self-conscious invocation of religion and Islam, or at least Islam as Boko Haram tries to define it. A big part of the book is an effort to show how Boko Haram found a niche in northern Nigeria’s religious field, and how it has tried to reshape the field around it.

ThurstonAlexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

Pariah Moonshine Part II: For Whom the Moon Shines

by Joshua Holden

This post originally appeared on The Aperiodical. We republish it here with permission. 

HoldenI ended Part I with the observation that the Monster group was connected with the symmetries of a group sitting in 196883-dimensional space, whereas the number 196884 appeared as part of a function used in number theory, the study of the properties of whole numbers.  In particular, a mathematician named John McKay noticed the number as one of the coefficients of a modular form.  Modular forms also exhibit a type of symmetry, namely if F is a modular form then there is some number k for which

Figure 1

for every set of whole numbers a, b, c, and d such that adbc=1.  (There are also some conditions as the real part of z goes to infinity.)

Modular forms, elliptic curves, and Fermat’s Last Theorem

In 1954, Martin Eichler was studying modular forms and observing patterns in their coefficients.  For example, take the modular form

Figure 2

(I don’t know whether Eichler actually looked at this particular form, but he definitely looked at similar ones.)  The coefficients of this modular form seem to be related to the number of whole number solutions of the equation

y2 = x3 – 4 x2 + 16

This equation is an example of what is known as an elliptic curve, which is a curve given by an equation of the form

y2 = x3 + ax2 + bx + c

Note that elliptic curves are not ellipses!  Elliptic curves have one line of symmetry, two open ends, and either one or two pieces, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. They are called elliptic curves because the equations came up in the seventeenth century when mathematicians started studying the arc length of an ellipse.  These curves are considered the next most complicated type of curve after lines and conic sections, both of which have been understood pretty well since at least the ancient Greeks.   They are useful for a lot of things, including cryptography, as I describe in Section 8.3 of The Mathematics of Secrets.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The elliptic curve y2= x3 + x has one line of symmetry, two open ends, and one piece.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The elliptic curve y2 = x3 – x has one line of symmetry, two open ends, and two pieces.

 

In the late 1950’s it was conjectured that every elliptic curve was related to a modular form in the way that the example above is.  Proving this “Modularity Conjecture” took on more urgency in the 1980’s, when it was shown that showing the conjecture was true would also prove Fermat’s famous Last Theorem.  In 1995 Andrew Wiles, with help from Richard Taylor, proved enough of the Modularity Conjecture to show that Fermat’s Last Theorem was true, and the rest of the Modularity Conjecture was filled in over the next six years by Taylor and several of his associates.

Modular forms, the Monster, and Moonshine

Modular forms are also related to other shapes besides elliptic curves, and in the 1970’s John McKay and John Thompson became convinced that the modular form

J(z) = e -2 π i z + 196884 e 2 π i z + 21493760 e 4 π i z  + 864299970 e 6 π i z  + …

was related to the Monster.  Not only was 196884 equal to 196883 + 1, but 21493760 was equal to 21296876 + 196883 + 1, and 21296876 was also a number that came up in the study of the Monster.  Thompson suggested that there should be a natural way of associating the Monster with an infinite-dimensional shape, where the infinite-dimensional shape broke up into finite-dimensional pieces with each piece having a dimension corresponding to one of the coefficients of J(z).   This shape was (later) given the name V♮, using the natural sign from musical notation in a typically mathematical pun.  (Terry Gannon points out that there is also a hint that the conjectures “distill information illegally” from the Monster.) John Conway and Simon Norton formulated some guesses about the exact connection between the Monster and V♮, and gave them the name “Moonshine Conjectures” to reflect their speculative and rather unlikely-seeming nature. A plausible candidate for V♮ was constructed in the 1980’s and Richard Borcherds proved in 1992 that the candidate satisfied the Moonshine Conjectures.  This work was specifically cited when Borcherds was awarded the Fields medal in 1998.

The construction of V♮ turned out also to have a close connection with mathematical physics.  The reconciliation of gravity with quantum mechanics is one of the central problems of modern physics, and most physicists think that string theory is likely to be key to this resolution.  In string theory, the objects we traditionally think of as particles, like electrons and quarks, are really tiny strings curled up in many dimensions, most of which are two small for us to see.  An important question about this theory is exactly what shape these dimensions curl into.  One possibility is a 24-dimensional shape where the possible configurations of strings in the shape are described by V♮.  However, there are many other possible shapes and it is not known how to determine which one really corresponds to our world.

More Moonshine?

Since Borcherds’ proof, many variations of the original “Monstrous Moonshine” have been explored.  The other members of the Happy Family can be shown to have Moonshine relationships similar to those of the Monster.  “Modular Moonshine” says that certain elements of the Monster group should have their own infinite dimensional shapes, related to but not the same as V♮.  (The “modular” in “Modular Moonshine” is related to the one in “modular form” because they are both related to modular arithmetic, although the chain of connections is kind of long. )  “Mathieu Moonshine” shows that one particular group in the Happy Family has its own shape, entirely different from V♮, and “Umbral Moonshine” extends this to 23 other related groups which are not simple groups.  But the Pariah groups remained outsiders, rejected by both the Happy Family and by Moonshine — until September 2017.

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Pariah Moonshine Part I: The Happy Family and the Pariah Groups

by Joshua Holden

This post originally appeared on The Aperiodical. We republish it here with permission. 

HoldenBeing a mathematician, I often get asked if I’m good at calculating tips. I’m not. In fact, mathematicians study lots of other things besides numbers. As most people know, if they stop to think about it, one of the other things mathematicians study is shapes. Some of us are especially interested in the symmetries of those shapes, and a few of us are interested in both numbers and symmetries. The recent announcement of “Pariah Moonshine” has been one of the most exciting developments in the relationship between numbers and symmetries in quite some time. In this blog post I hope to explain the “Pariah” part, which deals mostly with symmetries. The “Moonshine”, which connects the symmetries to numbers, will follow in the next post.

What is a symmetry?

First I want to give a little more detail about what I mean by the symmetries of shapes. If you have a square made out of paper, there are basically eight ways you can pick it up, turn it, and put it down in exactly the same place. You can rotate it 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. You can rotate it 180 degrees. You can turn it over, so the front becomes the back and vice versa. You can turn in over and then rotate it 90 degrees either way, or 180 degrees. And you can rotate it 360 degrees, which basically does nothing. We call these the eight symmetries of the square, and they are shown in Figure 1.

Figure1

Figure 1. The square can be rotated into four different positions, without or without being flipped over, for eight symmetries total.

If you have an equilateral triangle, there are six symmetries. If you have a pentagon, there are ten. If you have a pinwheel with four arms, there are only four symmetries, as shown in Figure 2, because now you can rotate it but if you turn it over it looks different. If you have a pinwheel with six arms, there are six ways. If you have a cube, there are 24 if the cube is solid, as shown in Figure 3. If the cube is just a wire frame and you are allowed to turn it inside out, then you get 24 more, for a total of 48.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The pinwheel can be rotated but not flipped, for four symmetries total.

Figure 3

Figure 3. The cube can be rotated along three different axes, resulting in 24 different symmetries.

These symmetries don’t just come with a count, they also come with a structure. If you turn a square over and then rotate it 90 degrees, it’s not the same thing as if you rotate it first and then flip it over. (Try it and see.) In this way, symmetries of shapes are like the permutations I discuss in Chapter 3 of my book, The Mathematics of Secrets: you can take products, which obey some of the same rules as products of numbers but not all of them. These sets of symmetries, which their structures, are called groups.

Groups are sets of symmetries with structure

Some sets of symmetries can be placed inside other sets. For example, the symmetries of the four-armed pinwheel are the same as the four rotations in the symmetries of the square. We say the symmetries of the pinwheel are a subgroup of the symmetries of the square. Likewise, the symmetries of the square are a subgroup of the symmetries of the solid cube, if you allow yourself to turn the cube over but not tip it 90 degrees, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4. The symmetries of the square are contained inside the symmetries of the cube if you are allowed to rotate and flip the cube but not tip it 90 degrees.

In some cases, ignoring a subgroup of the symmetries of a shape gets us another group, which we call the quotient group. If you ignore the subgroup of how the square is rotated, you get the quotient group where the square is flipped over or not, and that’s it. Those are the same as the symmetries of the capital letter A, so the quotient group is really a group. In other cases, for technical reasons, you can’t get a quotient group. If you ignore the symmetries of a square inside the symmetries of a cube, what’s left turns out not to be the symmetries of any shape.

You can always ignore all the symmetries of a shape and get just the do nothing (or trivial) symmetry, which is the symmetries of the capital letter P, in the quotient group. And you can always ignore none of the nontrivial symmetries, and get all of the original symmetries still in the quotient group. If these are the only two possible quotient groups, we say that the group is simple. The group of symmetries of a pinwheel with a prime number of arms is simple. So is the group of symmetries of a solid icosahedron, like a twenty-sided die in Dungeons and Dragons. The group of symmetries of a square is not simple, because of the subgroup of rotations. The group of symmetries of a solid cube is not simple, not because of the symmetries of the square, but because of the smaller subgroup of symmetries of a square with a line through it, as shown in Figures 5 and 6. The quotient group there is the same as the symmetries of the equilateral triangle created by cutting diagonally through a cube near a corner.

Figure 5

Figure 5. The symmetries of a square with line through it. We can turn the square 180 degrees and/or flip it, but not rotate it 90 degrees, so there are four.

Figure 6

Figure 6. The symmetries of the square with a line through it inside of the symmetries of the cube.

Categorizing the Pariah groups

As early as 1892, Otto Hölder asked if we could categorize all of the finite simple groups. (There are also shapes, like the circle, which have an infinite number of symmetries. We won’t worry about them now.)  It wasn’t until 1972 that Daniel Gorenstein made a concrete proposal for how to make a complete categorization, and the project wasn’t finished until 2002, producing along the way thousands of pages of proofs. The end result was that almost all of the finite simple groups fell into a few infinitely large categories: the cyclic groups, which are the groups of symmetries of pinwheels with a prime number of arms, the alternating groups, which are the groups of symmetries of solid hypertetrahedra in 5 or more dimensions, and the “groups of Lie type”, which are related to matrix multiplication over finite fields and describe certain symmetries of objects known as finite projective planes and finite projective spaces. (Finite fields are used in the AES cipher and I talk about them in Section 4.5 of The Mathematics of Secrets.)

Even before 1892, a few finite simple groups were discovered that didn’t seem to fit into any of these categories. Eventually it was proved that there were 26 “sporadic” groups, which didn’t fit into any of the categories and didn’t describe the symmetries of anything obvious — basically, you had to construct the shape to fit the group of symmetries that you knew existed, instead of starting with the shape and finding the symmetries. The smallest of the sporadic groups has 7920 symmetries in it, and the largest, known as the Monster, has over 800 sexdecillion symmetries. (That’s an 8 with 53 zeros after it!) Nineteen of the other sporadic groups turn out to be subgroups or quotient groups of subgroups of the Monster. These 20 became known as the Happy Family. The other 6 sporadic groups became known as the ‘Pariahs’.

The shape that was constructed to fit the Monster lives in 196883-dimensional space. In the late 1970’s a mathematician named John McKay noticed the number 196884 turning up in a different area of mathematics. It appeared as part of a function used in number theory, the study of the properties of whole numbers. Was there a connection between the Monster and number theory? Or was the idea of a connection just … moonshine?

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Candida Moss & Joel Baden on Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded on a “biblical worldview as a Christian nation.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes—and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise. Read on to learn more about the Greens, Hobby Lobby, and their forthcoming Museum of the Bible.

What does the crafting store Hobby Lobby have to do with the Bible?
For those who know Hobby Lobby simply from its hundreds of stores, the connection with the Bible may not be immediately apparent. But the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, have been major players in the world of evangelical Christianity for many years. In the last decade or so, they have been working toward the opening of a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open in November 2017 in Washington D.C., just a few blocks from the National Mall. To this end, they have been collecting biblical artifacts at an astonishing rate: around 40,000 items in total. A group of scholars has been recruited to study and publish much of this material. The Greens have also created a Bible curriculum, originally intended for public schools, and now marketed to home-schoolers. The question we try to address in the book is how the evangelical beliefs of the Green family have influenced these various Bible-oriented ventures, and what it means for the kinds of products, including the museum, that they are producing.

Forty thousand items— that sounds like a lot!
Indeed. Most collections of that size take generations to build, but the Greens acquired the bulk of their collection in just a few years. The speed with which they went about this came with some complications, though, as was featured in the news earlier this summer: thousands of cuneiform texts from Iraq had been illegally imported to the U.S. and were seized by customs officials, with the result that Hobby Lobby had to forfeit them. In the early years of their buying spree, they seem not to have been especially careful to observe the proper cultural heritage laws.

What about their Bible curriculum?
Originally, the curriculum they developed was going to be used in American public schools, as part of an elective course. When the ACLU got their hands on the draft of the curriculum, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a purely secular view of the Bible that was being presented. It was basically an evangelical Protestant curriculum, and it was eventually withdrawn and retooled. Now it is available for homeschool communities. But it still suffers from some of the faith-based biases of its creators, subtly offering a Christian understanding of the Bible and challenging many of the commonly accepted scholarly claims about the Bible—maintaining, for instance, that Moses may have written some parts of the Torah.

Why are they putting their Bible museum in Washington, D.C.?
There is a good reason that so many museums are in the capital: it’s a major tourist destination, especially for museum-goers. More people will experience the museum in D.C. than they would almost anywhere else. At the same time, though, the Greens believe that the United States is a deeply Christian nation, and that the Bible played a major part in its formation, going back to the Founding Fathers. The placement of the museum just a few steps from the Capitol building is meaningful for them: they want to make sure that members of the government know how important the Bible has been, and take the Bible more into consideration as they lead the country.

What’s wrong with evangelicals wanting to bring public attention to the Bible?
Nothing at all—they are private citizens, and they have the right to spend their money as they like, and the right to attempt to educate and influence however they see fit. Where they run into problems, at least in our view, is in the way that they describe their project. They don’t see themselves as putting forward an evangelical Christian view of the Bible—they’re different from, say, the fundamentalist Creation Museum in Kentucky. They strenuously claim that everything they do is “non-sectarian,” and is simply trying to tell the story of the Bible in an objective manner. But the story they are telling is, in fact, a very Protestant one. Our concern is that they are misleading the public, presenting a particular faith’s version of the Bible as if it were the truth, full stop. In their defense, it’s not clear that they’re even entirely aware that this is what they are doing. They are so steeped in their faith tradition that they seem at times simply ignorant that what they are saying might not be accepted by everyone outside it.

How did you become interested in Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible in the first place?
It began with an innocent conversation at a professional conference. A friend of ours mentioned that he had been trying to track down a particular papyrus to study, but learned that it had been purchased by Hobby Lobby. This was before most of their plans, including the museum, were widely known, and we were mystified: what would a crafting chain want with biblical artifacts? As we learned more about their collection—which was already massive—we thought it was a story worth telling, and we began writing a piece on it for The Atlantic. The more we researched, the deeper we got, and the more we learned about not only the collection but the curriculum, the scholarly initiatives, and the planned museum. We quickly realized that there was more than just an article here—that this was a book, and one that would hopefully open a window onto a much wider set of issues, such as the intersection of private faith and the public sphere. And though the book is finished, the story is still ongoing.

Moss&BadenCandida R. Moss is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham and the author of, among other books, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Dangerous Legacy (HarperOne). Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at the Yale Divinity School. His books include The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne).