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.

 

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.

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.

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).

Michael Ruse on On Purpose

Can we live without the idea of purpose? Should we even try to? Kant thought we were stuck with purpose, and even Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which profoundly shook the idea, was unable to kill it. Indeed, teleological explanation—what Aristotle called understanding in terms of “final causes”—seems to be making a comeback today, as both religious proponents of intelligent design and some prominent secular philosophers argue that any explanation of life without the idea of purpose is missing something essential. In On Purpose, Michael Ruse explores the history of the idea of purpose in philosophical, religious, scientific, and historical thought, from ancient Greece to the present. Read on to learn more about the idea of “purpose,” the long philosophical tradition around it, and how Charles Darwin fits in.

On Purpose?  So what’s with the smart-alecky title?

It was a friend of Dr. Johnson who said that he had tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness always kept breaking in.  Actually, that is a little bit unfair to philosophers.  Overall, we are quite a cheerful group, especially when we think that we might have been born sociologists or geographers.  However, our sense of humor is a bit strained, usually—as in this case—involving weak puns and the like.  My book is about a very distinctive form of understanding, when we do things in terms of the future and not the past.

In terms of the future?  Why not call your book On Prediction?

I am not talking about prediction, forecasting what you think will happen, although that is involved.  I am talking about when the future is brought in to explain things that are happening right now.  Purposeful thinking is distinctive and interesting because normally when we try to explain things we do so in terms of the past or present.  Why do you have a bandage on your thumb?  Because I tried to hang the picture myself, instead of getting a grad student to do it.  Purposeful thinking—involving what Aristotle called “final causes” and what since the eighteenth century has often been labeled “teleological” thinking—explains in terms of future events.  Why are you studying rather than going to the ball game?  Because I want to do well on the GRE exam and go to a good grad school.

Why is this interesting?

In the case of the bandaged thumb, you know that the hammer hit you rather than the nail.  In the case of studying, you may decide that five to ten years of poverty and peonage followed by no job is not worth it, and you should decide to do something worthwhile like becoming a stockbroker or university administrator.  We call this “the problem of the missing goal object.”  Going to grad school never occurred, but it still makes sense to say that you are studying now in order to go to grad school.

Is this something that you thought up, or is it something with a history?

Oh my, does it ever have a history.  One of the great things about my book, if I might show my usual level of modesty, is that I show the whole problem of purpose is one with deep roots in the history of philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and coming right up to the modern era, particularly the thinking of Immanuel Kant.  In fact, I argue that it is these three very great philosophers who set the terms of the discussion—Plato analyses things in terms of consciousness, Aristotle in terms of principles of ordering whatever that might mean, and Kant opts for some kind of heuristic approach.

If these thinkers have done the spadework, what’s left for you?

I argue that the truth about purposeful thinking could not be truly discovered until Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859) had proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection.  With that, we could start to understand forward-looking thinking about humans—why is he studying on such a beautiful day?  He wants to go to grad school.  About plants and animals—why does the stegosaurus have those funny-looking plates down its back?  To control its temperature.  And why we don’t use such thinking about inanimate objects?  Why don’t we worry about the purpose of the moon?  Perhaps we should.  It really does exist in order to light the way home for drunken philosophers.

Why is it such a big deal to bring up Darwin and his theory of evolution?  Surely, the kind of people who will read your book will have accepted the theory long ago?

Interestingly, no!  The main opposition to evolutionary thinking comes from the extreme ends of the spectrum: evangelical Christians known as Creationists—biblical literalists—and from professional philosophers.  There are days when it seems that the higher up the greasy pole you have climbed, the more likely you are to deny Darwinism and be a bit iffy about evolution generally.  This started just about as soon as the Origin appeared, and the sinister anti-evolutionary effect of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and above all Ludwig Wittgenstein is felt to this day.  A major reason for writing my book was to take seriously Thomas Henry Huxley’s quip that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud, and that matters.

Given that you are a recent recipient of the Bertrand Russell Society’s “Man of the Year” Award, aren’t you being a bit ungracious?

I have huge respect for Russell.  He was a god in my family when, in the 1940s and 50s, I was growing up in England.  One of my greatest thrills was to have been part of the crowd in 1961 in Trafalgar Square listening to him declaim against nuclear weapons.  But I think he was wrong about the significance of Darwin for philosophy and I think I am showing him great respect in arguing against him.  I feel the same way about those who argue against me.  My proudest boast is that I am now being refuted in journals that would never accept anything by me.

One of the big problems normal people today have about philosophy is that it seems so irrelevant. Initiates arguing about angels on the heads of pins?  Why shouldn’t we say the same about your book?

Three reasons.  First, my style and approach.  It is true that most philosophy produced by Anglophone philosophers today is narrow and boring.  Reading analytic philosophy is like watching paint dry and proudly so.  Against this, on the one hand I am more a historian of ideas using the past to illuminate the present.  That is what being an evolutionist is all about.  Spending time with mega-minds like Plato and Aristotle and Kant is in itself tremendously exciting.  On the other hand, I have over fifty years of teaching experience, at the undergraduate level almost always at the first- and second-year level.  I know that if you are not interesting, you are going to lose your audience.  The trick is to be interesting and non-trivial.

Second, I don’t say that my book is the most important of the past hundred-plus years, but my topic is the most important.  Evolution matters, folks, it really does.  It is indeed scary to think that we are just the product of a random process of change and not the favored product of a Good God—made in His image.  Even atheists get the collywobbles, or at least they should.  It is true all the same.  Fifty years ago, the geneticist and Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller said that a hundred years without Darwin is enough.  That is still true.  Amen.

Third, deliberately, I have made this book very personal.  At the end, I talk about purpose in my own life.  Why, even though I am a non-believer, I have been able to find meaning in what I think and do.  This ranges from my love of my wife Lizzie and how with dedication and humor we share the challenges of having children—not to mention our love of dogs, most recent addition to the family, Nutmeg a whippet—through cooking on Saturday afternoons while listening to radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera matinees, to reading Pickwick Papers yet one more time.  I suspect that many of my fellow philosophers will find this all rather embarrassing.  I mean it to be.  Philosophy matters.  My first-ever class on the subject started with Descartes’ Meditations.  Fifteen minutes into the class, I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  Nearly sixty years later I am still at it and surely this interview tells you that I love it, every moment.

So, why should we read your book?

Because it really does square the circle.  It is cheerful and philosophical.  It is on a hugely important topic and there are some good jokes.  I am particularly proud of one I make about Darwin Day, the celebration by New Atheists, and their groupies of the birthday of Charles Darwin.

Which is?

Oh, hell no.  I am not going to tell you.  Go out and buy the book.  And while you are at it, buy one for your mum and dad and one each for your siblings and multi-copies for your students and….  I am seventy-seven years old.  I need a bestseller so I can retire.  You need a bestseller so I can retire.

RuseMichael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than fifty books, including Darwinism as Religion, The Philosophy of Human Evolution, and The Darwinian Revolution.

Richard Rex on The Making of Martin Luther

Rex

The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. Read on to learn more about this key figure of the Protestant Reformation.

Why The Making of Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was very much a self-made man, though he would not have appreciated the compliment. From his point of view, he was made by God—not only in the basic sense soon to be inculcated by the catechism, but in the special sense that God had raised him up as an apostolic and almost apocalyptic figure to renew the preaching of the Gospel on earth. My book sets out the process by which Luther came to a new understanding of the relationship between the individual Christian and God, a process which integrally involved coming to a new understanding of himself.

Apostolic?
A vital word. Luther’s professional focus on the epistles of Paul—generally known at that time simply as ‘the Apostle’—in the 1510s was the crucible in which both his new account of the Christian faith and his new understanding of himself were forged. Luther modeled himself increasingly on Paul and came to see himself in apostolic guise.

Apocalyptic?
Definitely. Luther cannot be properly understood if due account is not taken of his sense of the imminence of the end times. Like most of his Christian contemporaries, he did not expect the world to last that much longer, but his own sense of the end of days was much more urgent, largely because of his conviction that the Papacy, which was swift to condemn him and his teachings, must be the Antichrist. The medieval myth of the Antichrist, which Luther adopted and adapted, saw this terrible figure as the herald of the final act of human history. If the Antichrist was in action, then the end really could not be far off.

Is your book a full biography?
The Making of Martin Luther is biographical, but not a biography, still less a full biography. Its unrelenting focus is on the development of Luther’s thinking, of his theology. If it was not for Luther’s ideas, we would never have heard of him. Chronologically, it is concerned with the first half of his career, the period of radical innovation, rather than with his last twenty years, the years of consolidation. It’s about how Luther brought down one establishment, not how he built up another.

One of your chapters is entitled ‘The Catholic Luther.’ Why?
Luther, like all the first generation Protestant Reformers, started out as a Catholic, and neither he nor the others can be understood without reference to their shared Catholic background. Luther only developed his ideas because he was a theologian. And he was only a theologian because of a very ‘Catholic’ event in his life: his ‘conversion’ to the professional religious life in fulfillment of a vow made to a saint in a thunderstorm. And Luther’s new ideas, though radical, reflected central concerns of late medieval Catholic theology, such as sin and grace, and the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. For example, Luther’s consuming sense of the superabundant sufficiency of Christ’s Passion for the redemption of sin was, paradoxically, a version of the same idea that lay beneath the Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences, against which he notoriously protested.

There are lots of books about Luther, even lots of new books. Why read this one?
The story of Luther is still bedeviled by misunderstandings—about what his key ideas were and when they emerged, about what was really different in his ideas, and about the Catholic ideas from which he increasingly stood apart. Some misunderstandings can be traced back to Luther himself, whose vast and diverse output requires very careful and contextual interpretation. Others are canonized in the long tradition of Luther studies, passing like viruses from one biography to another. Historians can struggle with the theology, and theologians can stumble over the history and chronology. I’m not the best historian, and I’m not the best theologian. But few historians of this period can match my grasp of the theological issues, and few theologians can match my capacity to interrogate sources historically. This book has sought to put the story together again from square one, on the basis of a critical and unsentimental engagement with the sources. It strips away the rust of tradition to reveal an entirely fresh image of Luther in the crucial phase of his life.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.

Kyle Harper on The Fate of Rome

Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition. The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. The example of Rome is a timely reminder that climate change and germ evolution have shaped the world we inhabit—in ways that are surprising and profound. Recently we interviewed Kyle Harper about his new book:

What is the fall of the Roman Empire?

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most dramatic episodes of political dissolution in the history of civilization—the long process that saw the fragmentation and disappearance of central Roman authority around the Mediterranean. In the second century, the Roman Empire was the world’s dominant superpower. One in four people on earth lived inside its borders. There was peace and prosperity on a scale never before seen. Five centuries later, Germanic kingdoms had conquered most of the west, and the Islamic caliphate was triumphant in most of the east. Population fell by maybe half, and there was less wealth, less trade, cruder institutions, and technological regression. The “fall of the empire” is a shorthand for all of the events and processes that led an empire that seemed invincible in the second century into a state of disintegration by A.D. 650.

What caused the empire to fall?

Historians have offered more than 200 answers, and obviously there was no single cause. But I argue that we have to allow environmental change—climate change and pathogen evolution—a dominant role. Human societies are deeply dependent upon their physical and biological environments, and these environments are radically unstable. The earth’s climate system has experienced significant climate change, even in the relatively stable epoch we know as the Holocene. And the biological environment—the set of organisms we share the planet with—has been wildly in flux, in ways that have redirected the course of human history. The empire was an intricate machine that depended on demographic and economic foundations, which fueled the army and the fiscal system. The Romans built their empire—unbeknownst to them—under unusually favorable climatic conditions. In a sense, their luck started to run out in the middle of the second century, with a sequence of climate change and new kinds of disease. Of course, these challenges did not spell the end of the empire. But the new reality became a part of the ongoing struggle to maintain their political dominance. Ultimately, the catastrophic pandemics that Rome suffered undermined the stability of the imperial machine.

How does new evidence change our answers to old questions?

Historians are the great unintended beneficiaries of at least two exciting new kinds of information about the past coming from the natural sciences. First, paleoclimate data. The need to understand global warming, and the earth’s climate system in general, has produced a treasure trove of new insights into the climate experienced by our ancestors. Two, genomic data. Thanks to the affordability of genome sequencing, we are learning a stunning amount about the story of the great killers of the past. The history of the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, has really started to come into focus. It is a relatively young pathogen that evolved in central Asia and caused three great historical pandemics, the first of which afflicted the later Roman Empire in the reign of Justinian. This pandemic was probably as devastating as the medieval Black Death, carrying off something like half of the entire population. And, now, its genetic traces have been found in graves of the sixth century. What is most exciting, however, is the consilience—the leaping together—of new kinds of evidence and more traditional historical sources. I hasten to add that we historians are constantly finding new texts and documents and producing better understanding of old texts and documents. The ongoing, humanistic study of the Roman Empire is just as important as the thrilling scientific evidence. The pieces are starting to fit together.

How did diseases affect the course of Roman history?

All underdeveloped societies bore a heavy burden of infectious disease. Most deaths in the Roman world were caused by infectious disease. And the very success of the Roman Empire, paradoxically, exacerbated the endemic disease burden. The Romans were unhealthy. The dense urban habitats were unsanitary environments where low-level gastroenteric diseases were rampant. The transformation of the physical landscape facilitated the spread of mosquito-borne pathogens like malaria. The interconnection of the empire created a unified ‘disease pool’ where chronic diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy spread further than ever before. But, above all, the empire—and its massive trade contacts beyond the borders—opened the gate for newly evolved diseases, like smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, and possibly others—to enter the Roman world. The evolution of new, acute, directly communicable diseases created disease events—what are properly called pandemics—of a magnitude that had never been seen before. Three pandemics in particular—the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Cyprian, and above all the Justinianic Plague—shook the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Does the argument that “the environment did it” reduce the role of human factors?

There is simply no compelling way to describe the fall of the Roman Empire without an enormous allowance for human factors. The Empire was a human creation. Its fate was shaped by human choices and human structures. But I argue that we can actually understand the human element more deeply, and more sympathetically, with a deeper knowledge of the environmental dimensions of Roman history. The Romans were far from helpless victims of environmental catastrophe. They harnessed the power of the environment. They reshaped the disease ecology of the empire, with unintended consequences. They were resilient in the face of stress and strain. But we should not shy away from recognizing the power of nature. The physical and biological environment is an integral part of human life. There is really no separating human and natural factors in the story of Roman civilization.

What lessons can we learn from the fall of the Roman Empire?

The Romans have always captivated the imagination. The empire they built was truly extraordinary, in its scale and longevity and in the ways that its precocious development presaged modernity. And the dissolution of this empire has always been a poignant theme for reflecting on how even the greatest and most powerful of human constructions are ultimately transient. To be sure, our world is very different from the ancient world. We live long lives thanks to germ theory, public health, and antibiotic pharmaceuticals. Anthropogenic climate change is a greater risk than solar variability or volcanic winters. Still, we learn from the past because history is a humanistic discipline. We study the past and in the process emerge with a deeper, richer sense of what it means to be human. I hope that The Fate of Rome leaves its readers with a new sensibility toward the relationship between humanity and the environment. We care about the Romans because their civilization seemed to break free of some of the constraints that nature had imposed. But nature is cunning. Germs evolve. Surprises and paradox lurk in the heart of progress. The deep power of evolution can change the world in a mere moment. I hope the book sensitizes us to the awesome power of nature at all scales, from the microscopic to the global.

How did you decide to write a book on Rome and the environment?

I’ve wanted to write this book for a long time. I’ve been very fortunate to be around extremely creative people, including Michael McCormick, who was one of the first historians to insist that people in a traditionally humanistic field should pay attention to things like climate science, archaeological genetics, and bioanthropology. But only in the last couple of years has it even become possible to start pulling all the evidence together. The sequencing of the ancient genome of Yersinia pestis, for instance, is a watershed, as is the much clearer definition of the “late antique little ice age” achieved from tree rings and ice cores. All of this has happened in the last few years, and for those of us studying Roman history, it’s unbelievably fortunate. I think my book is the first to try to tie all this together with a robust model of how the Roman Empire actually worked, and what’s exciting is that over the next decade there will be lots of new evidence and plenty of revision to the story that I tell.

I also am lucky to be a Provost at the same time I’ve been working on this book. It means that I get to interact with atmospheric scientists, anthropologists, ecologists, microbiologists, and so on, on a daily basis. I have very generous colleagues who have helped me trespass across other disciplines. In turn, I hope my book shows why history is so valuable and so essential to other fields. Historians have a part to play in helping us understand everything from the landscape of global health to the chemistry of the atmosphere. In short, just as the natural sciences can help us understand human history better, so too can a deeper knowledge of the history of our species help us understand the natural world.

HarperKyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius: The Little Book of Black Holes

Black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago, have long intrigued scientists and the public with their bizarre and fantastical properties. Although Einstein understood that black holes were mathematical solutions to his equations, he never accepted their physical reality—a viewpoint many shared. This all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a deeper conceptual understanding of black holes developed just as new observations revealed the existence of quasars and X-ray binary star systems, whose mysterious properties could be explained by the presence of black holes. Black holes have since been the subject of intense research—and the physics governing how they behave and affect their surroundings is stranger and more mind-bending than any fiction. The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius takes readers deep into the mysterious heart of the subject, offering rare clarity of insight into the physics that makes black holes simple yet destructive manifestations of geometric destiny. Read on to learn a bit more about black holes and what inspired the authors to write this book.

Your book tells the story of black holes from a physics perspective. What are black holes, really? What’s inside?

Black holes are regions of spacetime from which nothing can escape, not even light. In our book, we try to live up to our title by getting quickly to the heart of the subject, explaining in non-technical terms what black holes are and how we use Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand them. What’s inside black holes is a great mystery. Taken at face value, general relativity says spacetime inside a black hole collapses in on itself, so violently that singularities form. We need something more than Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand what these singularities mean. Hawking showed that quantum effects cause black holes to radiate very faintly. That radiation is linked with quantum fluctuations inside the black hole. But it’s a matter of ongoing debate whether these fluctuations are a key to resolving the puzzle of the singularity, or whether some more drastic theory is needed.

How sure are we that black holes exist?

A lot more certain than we were a few years ago. In September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, each one about thirty times the mass of the sun. Everything about that detection fit our expectations based on Einstein’s theories, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there really are black holes out there. In fact, before the LIGO detection we were already pretty sure that black holes exist. Matter swirling around gigantic black holes at the core of distant galaxies form the brightest objects in the Universe. They’re called quasars, and the only reason they’re dim in our sight is that they’re so far away, literally across the Universe. Similar effects around smaller black holes generate X-rays that we can detect relatively nearby, mere thousands of light years away from us. And we have good evidence that there is a large black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Can you talk a bit about the formation of black holes?

Black holes with mass comparable to the sun can form when big stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves. Ordinarily, gravity is the weakest force, but when too much matter comes together, no force conceivable can hold it up against the pull of gravity. In a sense, even spacetime collapses when a black hole forms, and the result is a black hole geometry: an endless inward cascade of nothing into nothing. All the pyrotechnics that we see in distant quasars and some nearby X-ray sources comes from matter rubbing against itself as it follows this inward cascade.

How have black holes become so interesting to non-specialists? How have they been glorified in popular culture?

There’s so much poetry in black hole physics. Black hole horizons are where time stands still—literally! Black holes are the darkest things that exist in Nature, formed from the ultimate ashes of used-up stars. But they create brilliant light in the process of devouring yet more matter. The LIGO detection was based on a black hole collision that shook the Universe, with a peak power greater than all stars combined; yet we wouldn’t even have noticed it here on earth without the most exquisitely sensitive detector of spacetime distortions ever built. Strangest of all, when stripped of surrounding matter, black holes are nothing but empty space. Their emptiness is actually what makes them easy to understand mathematically. Only deep inside the horizon does the emptiness end in a terrible, singular core (we think). Horrendous as this sounds, black holes could also be doorways into wormholes connecting distant parts of the Universe. But before packing our bags for a trip from Deep Space Nine to the Gamma Quadrant, we’ve got to read the fine print: as far as we know, it’s impossible to make a traversable wormhole.

What inspired you to write this book? Was there a point in life where your interest in this topic was piqued?

We both feel extremely fortunate to have had great mentors, including Igor Klebanov, Curt Callan, Werner Israel, Matthew Choptuik, and Kip Thorne who gave us a lot of insight into black holes and general relativity. And we owe a big shout-out to our editor, Ingrid Gnerlich, who suggested that we write this book.

GubserSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String Theory. Frans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton.

Kip Thorne & Roger Blandford on Modern Classical Physics

PhysicsThis first-year, graduate-level text and reference book covers the fundamental concepts and twenty-first-century applications of six major areas of classical physics that every masters- or PhD-level physicist should be exposed to, but often isn’t: statistical physics, optics (waves of all sorts), elastodynamics, fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and special and general relativity and cosmology. Growing out of a full-year course that the eminent researchers Kip S. Thorne, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Roger D. Blandford taught at Caltech for almost three decades, this book is designed to broaden the training of physicists. Its six main topical sections are also designed so they can be used in separate courses, and the book provides an invaluable reference for researchers.

This book emerged from a course you both began teaching nearly 4 decades ago. What drove you to create the course, and ultimately to write this book?

KST: We were unhappy with the narrowness of physics graduate education in the United States. We believed that every masters-level or PhD physicist should be familiar with the basic concepts of all the major branches of classical physics and should have some experience applying them to real world phenomena. But there was no obvious route to achieve this, so we created our course.

RDB: Of course we had much encouragement from colleagues who helped us teach it and students who gave us invaluable feedback on the content.

The title indicates that the book is a “modern” approach to classical physics (which emphasizes physical phenomena at macroscopic scales). What specifically is “modern” in your book’s approach to this subject?

KST: Classical-physics ideas and tools are used extensively today in research areas as diverse as astrophysics, high-precision experimental physics, optical physics, biophysics, controlled fusion, aerodynamics, computer simulations, etc. Our book draws applications from all these modern topics and many more. Also, these modern applications have led to powerful new viewpoints on the fundamental concepts of classical physics, viewpoints that we elucidate—for example, quantum mechanical viewpoints and language for purely classical mode-mode coupling in nonlinear optics and in nonlinear plasma physics.

Why do you feel that it is so important for readers to become more familiar with classical physics, beyond what they may have been introduced to already?

KST: In their undergraduate and graduate level education, most physicists have been exposed to classical mechanics, electromagnetic theory, elementary thermodynamics, and little classical physics beyond this. But in their subsequent careers, most physicists discover that they need an understanding of other areas of classical physics (and this book is a vehicle for that).

In many cases they may not even be aware of their need. They encounter problems in their research or in R&D where powerful solutions could be imported from other areas of classical physics, if only they were aware of those other areas. An example from my career: in the 1970s, when trying to understand recoil of a binary star as it emits gravitational waves, I, like many relativity physicists before me, got terribly confused. Then my graduate student, Bill Burke—who was more broadly educated than I—said “we can resolve the confusion by adopting techniques that are used to analyze boundary layers in fluid flows around bodies with complicated shapes.” Those techniques (matched asymptotic expansions), indeed, did the job, and through Bill, they were imported from fluid mechanics into relativity.

RDB: Yes. To give a second example, when I was thinking about ways to accelerate cosmic rays, I recalled graduate lectures on stellar dynamics and found just the tools I needed.

You also mention in the book that geometry is a deep theme and important connector of ideas. Could you explain your perspective, and how geometry is used thematically throughout the book?

KST: The essential point is that, although coordinates are a powerful, and sometimes essential, tool in many calculations, the fundamental laws of physics can be expressed without the aid of coordinates; and, indeed, their coordinate-free expressions are generally elegant and exceedingly powerful. By learning to think about the laws in coordinate-free (geometric) language, a physicist acquires great power. For example, when one searches for new physical laws, requiring that they be geometric (coordinate-free) constrains enormously the forms that they may take. And in many practical computations (for example, of the relativistic Doppler shift), a geometric route to the solution can be faster and much more insightful than one that uses coordinates. Our book is infused with this.

RDB: We are especially keen on presenting these fundamental laws in a manner which makes explicit the geometrically formulated conservation laws for mass, momentum, energy, etc. It turns out that this is often a good starting point when one wants to solve these equations numerically. But ultimately, a coordinate system must be introduced to execute the calculations and interpret the output.

One of the areas of application that you cover in the book is cosmology, an area of research that has undergone a revolution over the past few decades. What are some of the most transformative discoveries in the field’s recent history? How does classical physics serve to underpin our modern understanding of how the universe formed and is evolving? What are some of the mysteries that continue to challenge scientists in the field of cosmology?   

RDB: There have indeed been great strides in understanding the large scale structure and evolution of the universe, and there is good observational support for a comparatively simple description. Cosmologists have found that 26 percent of the energy density in the contemporary, smoothed-out universe is in the form of “dark matter,” which only seems to interact through its gravity. Meanwhile, 69 percent is associated with a “cosmological constant,” as first introduced by Einstein and which causes the universe to accelerate. The remaining five percent is the normal baryonic matter which we once thought accounted for essentially all of the universe. The actual structure that we observe appears to be derived from almost scale-free statistically simple, random fluctuations just as expected from an early time known as inflation. Fleshing out the details of this description is almost entirely an exercise in classical physics. Even if this description is validated by future observations, much remains to be understood, including the nature of dark matter and the cosmological constant, what fixes the normal matter density, and the great metaphysical question of what lies beyond the spacetime neighborhood that we can observe directly.

KST: Remarkably, in fleshing out the details in the last chapter of our book, we utilize classical-physics concepts and results from every one of the other chapters. ALL of classical physics feeds into cosmology!

The revolution in cosmology that you describe depends upon many very detailed observations using telescopes operating throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum and beyond. How do you deal with this in the book?

RDB: We make no attempt to describe the rich observational and experimental evidence, referring the reader to many excellent texts on cosmology that describe these in detail. However, we do describe some of the principles that underlie the design and operation of the radio and optical telescopes that bring us cosmological data.

There is has also been a lot of excitement regarding the recent observation by LIGO of gravitational waves caused by merging black holes. How is this subject covered in the book, and how, briefly, are some of the concepts of classical physics elucidated in your description of this cutting-edge research area?   

KST: LIGO’s gravitational wave detectors rely on an amazingly wide range of classical physics concepts and tools, so time and again we draw on LIGO for illustrations. The theory of random processes, spectral densities, the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, the Fokker-Planck equation; shot noise, thermal noise, thermoelastic noise, optimal filters for extracting weak signals from noise; paraxial optics, Gaussian beams, the theory of coherence, squeezed light, interferometry, laser physics; the interaction of gravitational waves with light and with matter; the subtle issue of the conservation or non conservation of energy in general relativity—all these and more are illustrated by LIGO in our book.

What are some of the classical physics phenomena in every day life that you are surprised more people do not fully understand—whether they are lay people, students, or scientists?

KST: Does water going down a drain really have a strong preference for clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the south? How strong? What happens as you cross the equator? How are ocean waves produced? Why do stars twinkle in the night sky, and why doesn’t Jupiter twinkle? How does a hologram work? How much can solid objects be stretched before they break, and why are there such huge differences from one type of solid (for example thin wire) to another (a rubber band)?

RDB: I agree and have to add that I am regularly humbled by some every day phenomenon that I cannot explain or for which I have carried around for years a fallacious explanation. There is, rightly, a lot of focus right now on climate change, energy, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. We hear about them every day. We physicists need to shore up our understanding and do a better job of communicating this.

Do you believe that some of your intended readers might be surprised to discover the deep relevance of classical physics to certain subject areas?

KST: In subjects that physicists think of as purely quantum, classical ideas and classical computational techniques can often be powerful. Condensed matter physics is an excellent example—and accordingly, our book includes a huge number of condensed-matter topics. Examples are Bose-Einstein condensates, the van der Waals gas, and the Ising model for ferromagnetism.

RDB: Conversely, quantum mechanical techniques are often used to simplify purely classical problems, for example in optics.

Writing a book is always an intellectual journey. In the preparation of this tremendously wide-ranging book, what were some of the most interesting things you learned along the way?

KST: How very rich and fascinating is the world of classical physics—far more so than we thought in 1980 when we embarked on this venture. And then there are the new inventions, discoveries, and phenomena that did not exist in 1980 but were so important or mind-boggling that we could not resist including them in our book. For example, optical-frequency combs and the phase-locked lasers that underlie them, Bose-Einstein condensates, the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11/01, the discovery of gravitational waves and the techniques that made it possible, laser fusion, and our view of the universe at large.

Kip S. Thorne is the Feynman Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. His books include Gravitation and Black Holes and Time Warps. Roger D. Blandford is the Luke Blossom Professor of Physics and the founding director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. Both are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.

 

setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.