Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.

Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

ScheidelWhat really reduces economic inequality? According to Walter Scheidel, the surprising answer is something nobody would wish for: mass violence and catastrophe. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully—it consistently declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Recently, Scheidel took the time to answer some questions about his startling conclusions:

What is the great leveler?

Violence is the great leveler, expended in massive shocks that upend the established order and flatten the distribution of income and wealth. There are four major types of shocks, which I call the Four Horsemen. That’s a fitting image because they were just as terrible as the bringers of doom in the Revelation of John. The first of them is mass mobilization warfare, which reached its heyday during the two World Wars when enormous physical destruction, confiscatory taxation, aggressive government intervention in the economy, inflation, and the disruption of global flows of trade and capital wiped out elite wealth and redistributed resources on a massive scale. These struggles also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing political reform, promoting extensions of the franchise, union membership, and the welfare state. The second is transformative revolution, which was also primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, when communists expropriated, redistributed and then collectivized, in the process matching the World Wars in terms of body count and human misery. The collapse of states is the third one, not uncommon in the more distant past: everyone suffered when law and order unraveled but the rich simply had more to lose. Plague rounds off this ghastly quartet. On a number of occasions, most famously during the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, epidemics carried off so many people that labor became scare and real incomes of workers rose while the land and capital holdings of the upper class lost value.

Your book covers thousands of years. Surely things must have changed over time?

Of course they have, but less than you might think. It was the sources of inequality that experienced the biggest changes. The shift to farming and herding after the last Ice Age let our ancestors create material assets that could be passed on to future generations, allowing some families to pull away from the rest. Later, as states and empires appeared and grew in size and power, elites filled their pockets with profits from public office, corruption, coercion and plunder. While this continues to be common practice in some parts of the world, in the West gains from commerce and enterprise have gradually replaced those more archaic form of enrichment. But even as these changes unfolded over the long run of history, violent shocks remained the most potent mechanisms of leveling.

But what about the postwar decades? Didn’t the economy grow and the middle class prosper at the same time as inequality declined?

That’s true, and that’s why many people in America and Europe look back to this period as a time of great progress and welfare. Current ideas of “making America great again” owe a lot to this happy convergence of affluence and equality, and reflect the understandable desire to somehow bring it back. But we must not forget that it was the carnage and the perils of the Second World War that undergirded the entire process. After the New Deal had ushered in progressive policies, it was the war effort that gave rise to the many invasive regulations and taxes that ensured that future gains would be more equitably distributed. This benign fallout from the war faded over time until a new round of liberalization, competitive globalization and technological change allowed inequality to soar once again. Since the 1980s, the economy has continued to expand but a growing share of the pie has been captured by the much-quoted “one percent.”

That’s a sobering perspective. Aren’t there any other factors that can combat inequality and don’t involve bloodshed and misery?

Absolutely. But they often fall short one way or another. Economic crises may hurt the rich for a few years but don’t normally have serious long-term consequences. By reducing inequality and prompting progressive policies, the Great Depression in the U.S. was a bit of outlier compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, political democracy by itself does not ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth. Nor does economic growth as such. Education undeniably plays an important role by matching skills with demand for labor: most recently, it helped lower the massive disparities that have long weighed down many Latin American countries. Even so, the historical record shows that all of these factors were at their most effective in the context or aftermath of major violent shocks, such as the World Wars. Successful land reform, which is of critical importance in agrarian societies, has likewise often been the product of war and revolution or the fear of violent conflict.

This doesn’t raise much hope for the future. What are the chances that we will be able to return to a fairer distribution of income and wealth?

That’s a good question, although few people will like my answer. The traditional mechanisms of major leveling, the Four Horsemen, currently lie dormant: technological progress has made future mass warfare less likely, there are currently no revolutions on the horizon, states are much more stable than they used to be, and genetics will help us ward off novel epidemics. That’s a good thing – nobody in their right mind should yearn for death and destruction just to create greater equality. But similarly powerful peaceful means of leveling have yet to be found. And to make matters worse, a number of ongoing developments may drive up inequality even further: the aging of Western societies, immigration’s pressure on social solidarity and redistributive policies, and the prospect of ever more sophisticated automation and genetic and cybernetic enhancement of the human body. Barring major disruptions or an entirely new politics of equality, we may well be poised to enter a long period of polarization, another Gilded Age that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ScheidelWalter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Dalton Conley & Jason Fletcher on how genomics is transforming the social sciences

GenomeSocial sciences have long been leery of genetics, but in the past decade, a small but intrepid group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists have harnessed the genomics revolution to paint a more complete picture of human social life. The Genome Factor shows how genomics is transforming the social sciences—and how social scientists are integrating both nature and nurture into a unified, comprehensive understanding of human behavior at both the individual and society-wide levels. The book raises pertinent questions: Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes? Recently, The Genome Factor‘s authors, Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, answered some questions about their work.

What inspired you to write The Genome Factor?

JF: Our book discusses how findings and theories in genetics and biological sciences have shaped social science inquiry—the theories, methodologies, and interpretations of findings used in economics, sociology, political science, and related disciplines —both historically and in the newer era of molecular genetics. We have witnessed, and participated in, a period of rapid change and cross-pollination between the social and biological sciences. Our book draws out some of the major implications of this cross-pollination—we particularly focus on how new findings in genetics has overturned ideas and theories in the social sciences. We also use a critical eye to evaluate what social scientists and the broader public should believe about the overwhelming number of new findings produced in genetics.

What insights did you learn in writing the book?

JF: Genetics, the human genome project in particular, has been quite successful and influential in the past two decades, but has also experienced major setbacks and is still reeling from years of disappointments and a paradigm shift. There has been a major re-evaluation and resetting of expectations the clarity and power of genetic effects. Only 15 years ago, a main model was on the so-called OGOD model—one gene, one disease. While there are a few important examples where this model works, it has mostly failed. This failure has had wide implications on how genetic analysis is conducted as well as a rethinking of previous results; many of which are now thought to false findings. Now, much analysis is conducted using data 10s or 100s of thousands of people because the thinking is that most disease is caused by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of genes that each have a tiny effect. This shift has major implications for social science as well. It means genetic effects are diffuse and subtle, which makes it challenging to combine genetic and social science research. Genetics has also shifted from a science of mechanistic understanding to a large scale data mining enterprises. As social scientists, this approach is in opposition to our norms of producing evidence. This is something we will need to struggle through in the future.

How did you select the topics for the book chapters?

JF: We wanted to tackle big topics across multiple disciplines. We discuss some of the recent history of combining genetics and social science, before the molecular revolution when “genetics” were inferred from family relationships rather than measured directly. We then pivot to provide examples of cutting edge research in economics and sociology that has incorporated genetics to push social science inquiry forward. One example is the use of population genetic changes as a determinant of levels of economic development across the world. We also focus our attention to the near future and discuss how policy decisions may be affected by the inclusion of genetic data into social science and policy analysis. Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence do we have that demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes?

What impact do you hope The Genome Factor will have?

JF: We hope that readers see the promise as well as the perils of combining genetic and social science analysis. We provide a lot of examples of ongoing work, but also want to show the reader how we think about the larger issues that will remain as genetics progresses. We seek to show the reader how to look through a social science lens when thinking about genetic discoveries. This is a rapidly advancing field, so the particular examples we discuss will be out of date soon, but we want our broader ideas and lens to have longer staying power. As an example, advances in gene editing (CRISPR) have the potential to fundamentally transform genetic analysis. We discuss these gene editing discoveries in the context of some of their likely social impacts.

Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His many books include Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. He lives in New York City. Jason Fletcher is Professor of Public Affairs, Sociology, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He lives in Madison. They are the authors of The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future.

Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

Joshua Holden: The secrets behind secret messages

“Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical.”

In The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital EncryptionJoshua Holden provides the mathematical principles behind ancient and modern cryptic codes and ciphers. Using famous ciphers such as the Caesar Cipher, Holden reveals the key mathematical idea behind each, revealing how such ciphers are made, and how they are broken.  Holden recently took the time to answer questions about his book and cryptography.

There are lots of interesting things related to secret messages to talk abouthistory, sociology, politics, military studies, technology. Why should people be interested in the mathematics of cryptography? 
JH: Modern cryptography is a science, and like all modern science it relies on mathematics.  If you want to really understand what modern cryptography can and can’t do you need to know something about that mathematical foundation. Otherwise you’re just taking someone’s word for whether messages are secure, and because of all those sociological and political factors that might not be a wise thing to do. Besides that, I think the particular kinds of mathematics used in cryptography are really pretty. 
What kinds of mathematics are used in modern cryptography? Do you have to have a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand it? 
JH: I once taught a class on cryptography in which I said that the prerequisite was high school algebra.  Probably I should have said that the prerequisite was high school algebra and a willingness to think hard about it.  Most (but not all) of the mathematics is of the sort often called “discrete.”  That means it deals with things you can count, like whole numbers and squares in a grid, and not with things like irrational numbers and curves in a plane.  There’s also a fair amount of statistics, especially in the codebreaking aspects of cryptography.  All of the mathematics in this book is accessible to college undergraduates and most of it is understandable by moderately advanced high school students who are willing to put in some time with it. 
What is one myth about cryptography that you would like to address? 
JH: Cryptography is all about secrets, and throughout most of its history the whole field has been shrouded in secrecy.  The result has been that just knowing about cryptography seems dangerous and even mystical. In the Renaissance it was associated with black magic and a famous book on cryptography was banned by the Catholic Church. At the same time, the Church was using cryptography to keep its own messages secret while revealing as little about its techniques as possible. Through most of history, in fact, cryptography was used largely by militaries and governments who felt that their methods should be hidden from the world at large. That began to be challenged in the 19th century when Auguste Kerckhoffs declared that a good cryptographic system should be secure with only the bare minimum of information kept secret. 
Nowadays we can relate this idea to the open-source software movement. When more people are allowed to hunt for “bugs” (that is, security failures) the quality of the overall system is likely to go up. Even governments are beginning to get on board with some of the systems they use, although most still keep their highest-level systems tightly classified. Some professional cryptographers still claim that the public can’t possibly understand enough modern cryptography to be useful. Instead of keeping their writings secret they deliberately make it hard for anyone outside the field to understand them. It’s true that a deep understanding of the field takes years of study, but I don’t believe that people should be discouraged from trying to understand the basics. 
I invented a secret code once that none of my friends could break. Is it worth any money? 
JH: Like many sorts of inventing, coming up with a cryptographic system looks easy at first.  Unlike most inventions, however, it’s not always obvious if a secret code doesn’t “work.” It’s easy to get into the mindset that there’s only one way to break a system so all you have to do is test that way.  Professional codebreakers know that on the contrary, there are no rules for what’s allowed in breaking codes. Often the methods for codebreaking with are totally unsuspected by the codemakers. My favorite involves putting a chip card, such as a credit card with a microchip, into a microwave oven and turning it on. Looking at the output of the card when bombarded 
by radiation could reveal information about the encrypted information on the card! 
That being said, many cryptographic systems throughout history have indeed been invented by amateurs, and many systems invented by professionals turned out to be insecure, sometimes laughably so. The moral is, don’t rely on your own judgment, anymore than you should in medical or legal matters. Get a second opinion from a professional you trustyour local university is a good place to start.   
A lot of news reports lately are saying that new kinds of computers are about to break all of the cryptography used on the Internet. Other reports say that criminals and terrorists using unbreakable cryptography are about to take over the Internet. Are we in big trouble? 
JH: Probably not. As you might expect, both of these claims have an element of truth to them, and both of them are frequently blown way out of proportion. A lot of experts do expect that a new type of computer that uses quantum mechanics will “soon” become a reality, although there is some disagreement about what “soon” means. In August 2015 the U.S. National Security Agency announced that it was planning to introduce a new list of cryptography methods that would resist quantum computers but it has not announced a timetable for the introduction. Government agencies are concerned about protecting data that might have to remain secure for decades into the future, so the NSA is trying to prepare now for computers that could still be 10 or 20 years into the future. 
In the meantime, should we worry about bad guys with unbreakable cryptography? It’s true that pretty much anyone in the world can now get a hold of software that, when used properly, is secure against any publicly known attacks. The key here is “when used properly. In addition to the things I mentioned above, professional codebreakers know that hardly any system is always used properly. And when a system is used improperly even once, that can give an experienced codebreaker the information they need to read all the messages sent with that system.  Law enforcement and national security personnel can put that together with information gathered in other waysurveillance, confidential informants, analysis of metadata and transmission characteristics, etc.and still have a potent tool against wrongdoers. 
There are a lot of difficult political questions about whether we should try to restrict the availability of strong encryption. On the flip side, there are questions about how much information law enforcement and security agencies should be able to gather. My book doesn’t directly address those questions, but I hope that it gives readers the tools to understand the capabilities of codemakers and codebreakers. Without that you really do the best job of answering those political questions.

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. His most recent book is The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Exclusive interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott on their NYT bestseller, Welcome to the Universe

UniverseWe’re thrilled to announce that Welcome to the Universe, a guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists, recently made the New York Times extended bestseller list in science. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all—from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wormholes, and time travel. The authors introduce some of the hot topics in astrophysics in today’s Q&A:

What is the Cosmic Perspective?

NDT: A view bigger than your own that offers a humbling, yet enlightening, and occasionally empowering outlook on our place as humans in time, space, on Earth and in the Universe. We devote many pages of Welcome to the Universe to establishing our place in the cosmos – not only declarations of that place, but also the reasons and the foundations for how we have come to learn how we fit in that place. When armed with a cosmic perspective, many earthly problems seem small, yet you cultivate a new sense of belonging to the universe. You are, in fact, a participant in the great unfolding of cosmic events.

What are some of the takeaways from the book?

NDT: If you read the entire book, and if we have succeeded as authors, then you should walk away with a deep sense of the operations of nature, and an appreciation for the size and scale of the universe; how and why planets form; how and why we search for planets orbiting around other stars, and alien life that may thrive upon them; how and why stars are born, live out their lives and die; what galaxies are and why they are the largest organizations of stars in the universe; the large scale structure of galaxies and space-time; the origins and future of the universe, Einstein’s relativity, black holes, and gravitational waves; and time travel. If that’s not enough, you will also learn about some of the continued unsolved mysteries in our field, such as dark matter, dark energy, and multiverses.

This book has more equations than do most popular books about astrophysics.  Was that a deliberate decision?

MAS: Yes.  The book’s subtitle is “An Astrophysical Tour,” and one of our goals in writing it was to show how observations, the laws of physics, and some high school mathematics can combine to yield the amazing discoveries of modern astrophysics: A Big Bang that happened 13.8 billion years ago (we show you how that number is determined), the dominant role dark matter has in the properties of galaxies (we tell you how we came to that conclusion), even the fact that some planets orbiting other stars have conditions conducive for liquid water to exist on their surface, thought to be a necessary prerequisite for life. Our goal is not just to present the wonders of the universe to the reader, but to have the reader understand how we have determined what we know, and where the remaining uncertainties (and there are plenty of them!) lie.

So your emphasis is on astrophysics as a quantitative science, a branch of physics?

MAS:  Yes.  We introduce the necessary physics concepts as we go: we do not expect the reader to know this physics before they read the book.  But astrophysicists are famous (perhaps notorious!) for rough calculations, “to astrophysical accuracy.”  We also lead the reader through some examples of such rough calculations, where we aim to get an answer to “an order of magnitude.”  That is, we’re delighted if we get an estimate that’s correct to within a factor of 2, or so.  Such calculations are useful in everyday life, helping us discriminate the nonsensical from the factual in the numerical world in which we live.

Can you give an example?

MAS: Most people in everyday discourse don’t think much about the distinction between “million,” “billion,” “trillion,” and so on, hearing them all as “a really big number,” with not much difference between them.  It is actually a real problem, and the difference between Federal budget items causing millions vs. billions of dollars is of course huge.  Our politicians and the media are confusing these all the time.  We hope that the readers of this book will come away with a renewed sense of how to think about numbers, big and small, and see whether the numbers they read about in the media make sense.

Is time travel possible?

JRG: In 1905 Einstein proved that time travel to the future is possible. Get on a rocket and travel out to the star Betelgeuse 500 light-years away and return at a speed of 99.995 % the speed of light and you will age only 10 years, but when you get back it will be the year 3016 on Earth. Even though we have not gone that fast or far, we still have time travelers among us today. Our greatest time traveler to date is the Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who by virtue of traveling at high speed in low Earth orbit for 879 days aged 1/44 of a second less than if he had stayed home. Thus, when he returned, he found Earth to be 1/44 of a second to the future of where he expected it to be. He has time traveled 1/44 of a second to the future. An astronaut traveling to the planet Mercury, living there for 30 years, and returning to Earth, would time travel into the future by 22 seconds. Einstein’s equations of general relativity, his theory of curved spacetime to explain gravity, have solutions that are sufficiently twisted to allow time travel to the past. Wormholes and moving cosmic strings are two examples. The time traveler can loop back to visit an event in his own past. Such a time machine cannot be used to journey back in time before it was created. Thus, if some supercivilization were to create one by twisting spacetime in the year 3000, they might use it to go from 3002 back to 3001, but they couldn’t use it go back to 2016, because that is before the time loop was created. To understand whether such time machines can be realized, we may need to understand how gravity works on microscopic scales, which will require us to develop a theory of quantum gravity. Places to look for naturally occurring time machines would be in the interiors of rotating black holes and at the very beginning of the universe, where spacetime is strongly curved.

Do we live in a multiverse?

JRG: A multiverse seems to be a natural consequence of the theory of inflation. Inflation explains beautifully the pattern of slightly hotter and colder spots we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. It explains why the universe is so large and why it is as smooth as it is and still has enough variations in density to allow gravity to grow these into galaxies and clusters of galaxies by the present epoch. It also explains why the geometry of the universe at the present epoch is approximately Euclidean. Inflation is a period of hyperactive accelerated expansion occurring at the beginning of our universe. It is powered by a large vacuum energy density and negative pressure permeating empty space that is gravitationally repulsive. The universe doubles in size about every 3 10-38 seconds. With this rate of doubling, it very quickly grows to enormous size: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024… That explains why the universe is so large. When the high density vacuum state decays, it doesn’t do so all at once. Like water boiling in a pot, it does not turn into steam all at once, but should form bubbles. Each expanding bubble makes a universe. The inflationary sea should expand forever, creating an infinite number of bubble universes, ours being one of them. Other distant bubble universes are so far away, and the space between us and them is expanding so fast, that light from them may never reach us. Nevertheless, multiple universes seem a nearly inevitable consequence of inflation.

What discovery about the universe surprises or inspires you the most?

JRG: Perhaps the most amazing thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible to intelligent, carbon-based life forms like ourselves. We have been able to discover how old the universe is (13.8 billion years) and figure out many of the laws by which it operates. The object of this book is to make the universe comprehensible to our readers.

Don’t miss this C-Span video on the book, in which the authors answer questions about the universe, including how it began and the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He is the author of many books, including Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, and the host of the Emmy Award–winning documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. J. Richard Gott is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His books include The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe (Princeton).

Robert E. Lerner on the captivating life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerRobert E. Lerner met Ernst Kantorowicz as a graduate student at Princeton, and was left with an unforgettable impression. The first complete biography of the man to date, Lerner’s Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life details the fascinating life of the influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Recently, Lerner took the time to answer some questions about the biography and what led him to Kantorowicz as a subject.

You have written a number of books on history before, but this is your first biography. What led you in this direction?

RL: My subject, Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963), author of celebrated works in history, was wounded at the battle of Verdun in 1916, fought against red revolutionaries in Munich in 1919, was a prominent member of a bizarre poetic circle in Germany during the Weimar era, spoke publicly in opposition to Nazism in 1933, eluded Gestapo arrest in 1938, lead a fight against a McCarthyite Board of Regents at the University of California in 1949-50, and was a central personality at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Moreover, he was a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century. Is that enough?

But why did you decide to write it now, when previously you have written almost exclusively on medieval topics?

RL: Actually, the project had been taking shape for decades. I met Kantorowicz once when I was a graduate student at Princeton, and he left an unforgettable impression. Later, in 1988, I was asked to speak about him on the occasion of a conference on “German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States.” To prepare, I interviewed a number of his surviving friends. And then I realized that there were many others I had not interviewed, and then I learned that there were many surviving letters, and so it went. I became a sort of Kantorowicz memorabilia collector. (I own the great man’s clothes brush—no joke.) “EKa,” as he preferred to be called, had a scintillating wit and was the subject of a large number of arresting anecdotes. But how could I go on collecting without anything to show for it aside from the contents of file folders? So a biography had to be written.

What are some of the things you’d like to have readers take away from your book?

RL: That depends partly on their interests. Those interested in the writing of history might want to see how a brilliant historian drew innovatively on the widest variety of sources—legends, prophecies, manifestos, panegyrics, mosaics, coins, ceremonial chants, and legal treatises. Others interested in the cultures of the Weimar Republic might want to become aware of how a secular Jew espoused the occult ideal of a “Secret Germany.” But anyone at all might want to see how a man who sent a copy of his first book to General von Hindenburg later became so alienated from everything the general stood for that he named a Thanksgiving Turkey “von Hintenburg” (rear-end-burg). Kantorowicz was not only notoriously eccentric (he wore a vest-pocket handkerchief even to cook-outs and on the beach) but had a coruscating wit. I’ve been thinking of compiling a “Kantorowicz joke book.” But for the present I hope I’ve written a gripping intellectual biography.

Robert E. Lerner is the author many books, mainly about the subject of medieval times. He is a fellow member of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome and a former member of of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years.

Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.

The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

Eléna Rivera on her new collection, Scaffolding

RiveraEléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.

Why the sonnet?

ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?

ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.

Is that why your sonnets are dated?

ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.

I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?

ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).

So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?

ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.

Do you think of yourself as European or French then?

ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.

About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?

ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.

Why poetry?

ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).

Eléna Rivera is a poet and a translator. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times and many others. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land. Her  ranslation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Rivera was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She currently resides in New York City.

Joel Mokyr: How the modern economy was born

MokyrBefore 1800, the majority of people lived on the verge of subsistence. In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, esteemed historian Joel Mokyr explains why in the industrialized world such a standard of living has grown increasingly uncommon. Mokyr offers a groundbreaking view on a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe, showing how the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development. Recently, Mokyr took some time to answer questions about the book.

How would you sum up the book’s main points?

JM: Before 1800 the overwhelming majority of humankind was poor; today in the industrialized world, almost nobody lives at the verge of subsistence, and a majority of people in the world enjoy living standards that would have been unimaginable a few centuries ago. My book asks how and why that happened. The question of the Great Enlightenment is central to economic history; a Nobel prize winning economist, Robert Lucas, once wrote that once we start thinking about it, it is hard to think of anything else.

Do we know how and where this started? 

JM: Yes, it started in Western Europe (primarily in Britain) in the last third of the eighteenth century through a set of technological innovations we now call the Industrial Revolution. From there it spread to the four corners of the world, although the success rate varied from place to place, and often the new techniques had to be adapted to local circumstances.

How is this book different from other work looking at this event? 

JM: The literature looking at the question of why this happened has advanced three types of explanations: geographical (looking at resources and natural endowments), political-institutional (focusing on the State and economic policies), or purely economic, through prices and incomes. My book examines culture: what did people believe, value, and how did they learn to understand natural phenomena and regularities they could harness to their material improvement.

Whose culture mattered most here? 

JM: Good question! Technological progress and the growth of modern science were driven first and foremost by a small educated elite of literate people who had been trained in medicine, mathematics and what they called “natural philosophy.” The culture of the large majority of people, who were as yet uneducated and mostly illiterate, mattered less in the early stages, but became increasingly important at a later stage when mass education became the norm.

So what was it about these intellectuals that mattered most? 

JM: In my earlier work, especially my The Enlightened Economy (2009), I pointed to what I called “the Industrial Enlightenment” as the central change that prepared the ground for modern economic growth. In the new book, I explain the origins of the Industrial Enlightenment. At some point, say around 1700, the consensus of intellectuals in Europe had become that material progress (what we were later to call “economic growth”) was not only desirable but possible, and that increasing what they called “useful knowledge” (science and technology) was the way to bring it about. These intellectuals then carried out that program through continuous advances in science that eventually found a myriad of economic applications.

How and why did this change happen? 

JM: That is the main question this book is focusing on and tries to answer. It describes and analyzes the cultural changes in the decades between Columbus and Newton, during what is sometimes known as “early modern Europe.” It was an age of tremendous cultural changes, above all of course the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Equally important was the emergence of what is known as “the Baconian Program,” in which Francis Bacon and his followers formulated the principles of what later became the Industrial Enlightenment. The success of these thinkers to persuade others of the validity of their notions of progress and the importance of a research agenda that reflected real economic needs is at the heart of the story of how the Industrial Enlightenment emerged.

So why did this take place in this period and in Europe, and not somewhere else? 

JM: Europe in this age enjoyed an unusual structure that allowed new and fresh ideas to flourish as never before. On the one hand, it was politically and religiously fragmented into units that fiercely competed with one another. This created a competitive market both for and among intellectuals that stimulated intellectual innovation. It was a market for ideas that worked well and in it the Baconian Program was an idea that succeeded, in part because it was attractive to many actors, but also because it was marketed effectively by cultural entrepreneurs. At the same time, political fragmentation coexisted with a unified and transnational institution (known at the time as the Republic of Letters) that connected European intellectuals through networks of correspondence and publications and created a pan-European competitive market in which new ideas circulated all over the Continent. In this sense, early modern Europe had the “best of all possible worlds” in having all the advantages of diversity and fragmentation and yet have a unified intellectual community.

Of all the new ideas, which ones were the most important? 

JM: Many new ideas played a role in the intellectual transformations that eventually led to the waves of technological progress we associate with modern growth. One of the most important was the decline in the blind veneration of ancient learning that was the hallmark of many other cultures. Shaking off the paralyzing grip of past learning is one of the central developments that counted in the cultural evolution in this period. The “classical canon” of Ptolemy and Aristotle was overthrown by rebels such as Copernicus and Galileo, and over time the intellectuals of this age became more assertive in their belief that they could outdo classical learning and that many of the conventional beliefs that had ruled the world of intellectuals in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were demonstrably wrong. Evidence and logic replaced ancient authority.

Was the success of the new ideas a foregone conclusion? 

JM: Not at all: there was fierce resistance to intellectual innovation by a variety of conservative powers, both religious and political. Many of the most original and creative people were persecuted. But in the end resistance failed, in large part because both people and books — and hence ideas — could move around in Europe and move to more liberal areas where their reception was more welcomed.

Could an Industrial Enlightenment not have happened elsewhere, for example in China? 

JM: The book deals at length with the intellectual development of China. In many ways, China’s economy in 1500 was as advanced and sophisticated as Europe. But in China the kind of competitive pluralism and diversity that were the hallmark of Europe were absent, and even though we see attempts to introduce more progressive thinking in China, it never succeeded to overthrow the conservative vested interests that controlled the world of intellectuals, above all the Mandarine bureaucracy. Instead of explosive growth as in Europe, Chinese science and technology stagnated.

Does the book have any implications for our own time? 

JM: By focusing on the social and economic mechanisms that stimulated and encouraged technological innovation in the past, my book points to the kind of factors that will ensure future technological creativity. First and foremost, innovation requires the correct incentives. Intellectuals on the whole do not require vast riches, but they will struggle for some measure of economic security and the opportunity to do their research in an environment of intellectual freedom in which successful innovation is respected and rewarded. Second, the freedom to innovate thrives in environments that are internationally competitive: just as much of innovation in earlier times emerged from the rivalry between England, France, Spain and the United Provinces, in the modern era the global competition between the United States, the EU, China, and so on will ensure continuous innovation. International competition and mobility ensure the intellectual freedom needed to propose new ideas. Finally, global institutions that share and distribute knowledge, as well as coordinate and govern intellectual communities of scientists and innovators across national boundaries and cultural divides, are critical for continued technological progress.

Joel Mokyr  is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the recipient of of the Heineken Prize for History and the International Balzan Prize for Economic History. Mokyr’s other works include The Enlightened Economy and the Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge of Economy. His most recent book is a Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.

Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.