I'm taking a break from this blog. 
I will leave access to the most read articles for archival purposes. I plan to return to it later on.


Onion: Historians admit to inventing ancient Greeks

posted Apr 13, 2011, 6:14 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Aug 20, 2013, 8:40 AM ]

This is rich:

WASHINGTON—A group of leading historians held a press conference Monday at the National Geographic Society to announce they had "entirely fabricated" ancient Greece, a culture long thought to be the intellectual basis of Western civilization.

The group acknowledged that the idea of a sophisticated, flourishing society existing in Greece more than two millennia ago was a complete fiction created by a team of some two dozen historians, anthropologists, and classicists who worked nonstop between 1971 and 1974 to forge "Greek" documents and artifacts.

"Honestly, we never meant for things to go this far," said Professor Gene Haddlebury, who has offered to resign his position as chair of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. "We were young and trying to advance our careers, so we just started making things up: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, the lever and fulcrum, rhetoric, ethics, all the different kinds of columns—everything."

"Way more stuff than any one civilization could have come up with, obviously," he added.

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be "not much help at all," they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

"That was a bitch to write, by the way," he continued, referring to the epic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. "But it seemed to catch on."

Read the entire "story" here.

Power of Networks

posted Apr 4, 2011, 9:09 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Apr 9, 2011, 8:24 AM ]

I just attended a few hours ago the Senior Common Room dinner at Dudley House and saw the excellent talk of Nicholas Christakis. He is MD, PhD occupying no less than three chairs at Harvard on top of being master of Pforzheimer House. The talk was a popularizing summary of his research on social network theory and was extremely well delivered. I thought I'd share here the TED talk of Prof. Christakis which is very similar to the talk I heard. 

Poppy seed

posted Mar 23, 2011, 8:20 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar

I went this evening to a poetry reading of the poet Robert Haas where he recounts the following pearl worth sharing: 

"Robert Pinsky and I were collaborating on a translation of a very great poem written by Czeslaw Milosz in the middle of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, called  “The World.” Everyone was writing protest poems and Milosz wrote a poem in a series of short song-like quatrains, almost like children’s verse, about a family in a Lithuanian village. And in one section of the poem, the mother tells the children a parable, and the poem is called  “Parable of a Poppy Seed.” The poem had never been translated because Milosz was convinced that it had to rhyme and sound like children’s verse if it was going to be translated. And so we said, “Let us give it a
try.” I think a literal translation of the Polish would go something like this:
On a poppy seed there was a tiny house.
Inside the house were people and a cat.
Outside poppy-seed dogs bark at the moon,
Never imagining that somewhere is a world much larger"

In my first effort to try to write a naive-sounding poem and make it rhyme I gave myself some latitude. I think it went like this: 

On a seed of poppy is a tiny house.
Inside are people, a cat and a mouse.
Outside in the yard, a dog barks at the moon.
Then, in his world, he sleeps until noon.

I thought, “not bad, I’m on my way.” I showed it to Czeslaw Milosz, who would sometimes come around late in the afternoon to see what we were doing. He read it and he said, “Mouse?”"

Here is a literal translation I found on the Internet of the same poem:

On a poppy seed is a tiny house,
Dogs bark at the poppy-seed moon,
And never, never do those poppy-seed dogs
Imagine that somewhere there is a world much larger.

The Earth is a seed—and really no more,
While other seeds are planets and stars.
And even if there were a hundred thousand,
Each might have a house and a garden.

All in a poppy head. The poppy grows tall,
The children run by and the poppy sways.
And in the evening, under the rising moon,
Dogs bark somewhere, now loudly, now softly.

I think this tells you a lot about what translation actually means apropos Latour and the like. 

Kuhn's failed student

posted Mar 9, 2011, 9:50 AM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Mar 9, 2011, 12:38 PM ]

There is this article in the NY times by a certain Mr. Errol Morris about his relationship with the historian and philosopher extraordinaire Thomas S. Kuhn. The article can be seen (i.e. I prefer to see it this way) as a personal vendetta, a quite despicable attempt to destroy Kuhn's reputation. 

Morris, who couldn't get into Harvard's History of Science program managed to get a recommendation letter from Erwin Hiebert and was admitted at Princeton (seen by him a consolation prize of sorts), where he was supposed to work with Kuhn. Morris had apparently a very bad relationship with Kuhn, for which he primarily blames Kuhn. In a quite standard character destruction kind of way, he depicts Kuhn as being intolerant, (he baned Morris to attend Saul Kripke's lectures at Princeton), a chain smoker (he claims that Kuhn smoked 7 packs of cigarettes a day) and violent (he claims that he threw a heavy ashtray at him). In what is depicted as a immoral and unlawful abuse of power Morris was kicked out of Princeton by Kuhn.  

I think that the article in and by itself offers good evidence why Morris being kicked out of Princeton wasn't really quite so immoral and unlawful. 

First of all it is clear that Morris never really understood what being a historian was really all about since, very ironically, commits in his article exactly the error of whigishness he pretents that Kuhn was trying so hard to teach him to avoid. What can be more whig and anachronistic than to excoriate somebody for being a cigarette smoker? Smoking might be an undesirably bad habit for us but it wasn't in any case so at the time Kuhn was around. Being an intellectual and not smoking - now that would have been really weird. How can somebody be a historian if he indiscriminately mixes the present and the past. Kuhn was right to kick Morris out of Princeton and it is only very right that he became a journalist, where anachronism is, more often than not, an asset, not a liability.

Secondly, here is what really caught my attention:

I had written a paper on James Clerk Maxwell’s displacement current for Kuhn’s seminar on 19th century electricity and magnetism. The paper might have been 30 or so double-spaced pages. Kuhn’s reply, typed on unlined yellow paper, was 30 pages, single-spaced, with Courier marching all the way from the left to the right side of the paper. No margins.

Just look at this. I mean, how could somebody who writes a 30 page response to your paper not be the greatest PhD advisor there can be. I would wish my advisors were like that. I think this fully rehabilitates Kuhn. 

Spoiler alert: What a euro-centric, culturally disrespectful historian really sounds like.

posted Feb 22, 2011, 1:58 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Feb 22, 2011, 4:02 PM ]

Relativism/constructivism and cultural studies are now so well established in academia that people have forgotten what the alternative - you know ye'r good old eurocentric, culturally disrespectful, smoke-filled room enthusiast really reads like. 

Reading for my economic history field exam I stumbled across David Landes' "The Unbound Prometheus: Technological change and industrial development in Wester Europe from 1750 to the present." The book was published in the annus mirabilis 1969 at Cambridge University Press. It really gives you a feel for what the intellectual atmosphere was like in academia around that time. (Landes was professor at Harvard)

Check out the following passages:

"There is good reason to believe that already in the Middle Ages, Europe was freer of superstition and more rational in behaviour than other parts of the world." p. 22

Certain Asian societies in particular have devoted considerable effort to the exploration of a world that lies outside or beyond the material universe accessible to ordinary sensory cognition. This other world may lie within or without the observer, who enters it usually with the assistance of drugs or through the medium of a deliberately induced trance-like state. Sometimes the claim is made that this is a higher form of consciousness; sometimes, merely that this other world is another, rich realm of a larger universe of experience. In either case, the assumption is that this, too, is real.

Western societies have also had their exploration of other realms, with or without drugs-their religious ecstasies, magical rites, superstitions, fairy tales, daydreams. But Western societies, and more particularly their intellectual and scientific leadership, established very early the boundary line between fantasy and reality, drawing careful distinctions between spiritual and material, between the realm of emotion and imagination on the one hand and that of observation and reason on the other. The shibboleth has been the communicability of experience: something is real if it can and will be perceived and described, perhaps even measured, by any person with the requisite faculties and instruments in the same terms.I In other words, what you see, I see. p. 25

The stuff of a dream is evanescent; the perceptions of a 'religious experience' are highly personal. These transcendental impressions may leave a legacy of emotions, attitudes, values.

What they do not yield is cognitive building blocks. By carefully distinguishing between these two forms of knowledge, Western culture saved itself from material impotence, at the cost perhaps of a certain psychic impoverishment. (I say 'perhaps' because those who have not enjoyed transcendental experiences must take those who have at their word.) The same point can be made about the highly complex and abstract reasoning of certain 'primitive' societies-reasoning that anthropologists are currently much concerned with and that they find to be different from, but not necessarily inferior to, the rationalism of science.

This ethnological literature is curiously defensive: by stressing the profundity and intimacy of these other systems of thought, by minimizing the differences, for example, between science and magic, the savant seeks to elevate the 'savage' to intellectual as well as spiritual and moral parity with the 'civilised'.' The cause is a worthy one. The anthropologist here has assumed the mantle of the priest who preaches humility by depreciating the works of man; and the humility of the twentieth century is relativism.

Yet although modesty is good for the soul, it is not always true. The difference between science and magic is the difference between rational and irrational; that is, the one makes possible effective action and the other does not, except adventitiously. p.26

Even so brilliant a scientist as Isaac Newton, the heir of a century of intellectual revolution, was credulous on this score. In hisfamous letter of 1669 (he was then only 26) to Francis Aston, advising that young man how to make the most of his travels, he suggests that Aston inquire whether 'in Hungary... they change Iron into Copper by dissolving it into a Vitriolate water wch they find in cavitys of rocks in the mines & then melting the slymy solution in a strong fire...'Yet it would be a mistake to equate this credulity with superstition. Rather, this kind of alchemy represented in effect a transitional stage between magic and science, between the irrational and the rational, in the sense that the change sought was to be accomplished by a real agent,and not by patently immaterial incantations. Newton did not know enough chemistry to realize that the kind of mutation he envisaged was impossible. But he and his contemporaries knew enough about the nature of reality and were sufficiently pragmatic to insist on results; so that when all the alchemical ingenuity in the world failed to turn up the philosophers' stone or the elixir of life, they abandoned the search and turned their knowledge and skills to the rational accomplishment of feasible ends. And so alchemy became chemistry. p28


posted Dec 31, 2010, 5:24 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Dec 31, 2010, 5:35 PM ]

Happy New Year to all of you!!!! Here are the 7pm fireworks on Boston Commons. 

Science and the passion for the tango. MIT faculty member quits to become professional tango dancer

posted Nov 11, 2010, 11:44 AM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Nov 11, 2010, 12:18 PM ]

Thanks so much Tom for pointing this out. 

Daniela Pucci was a tenured assistant professor at MIT, who since her time as a graduate student lead a double life - working towards her PhD by day and dancing tango by night. Her passion for the tango eventually took over her life and although successful in her science career she quit the MIT faculty to dedicate her life to dancing. 

Here is an interview with her: 

Here is a video of her dancing with her partner Luis:

Why Beethoven is the absolute best: It is not the music, but what is inside.

posted Nov 5, 2010, 7:46 AM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Nov 5, 2010, 8:16 AM ]

Yesterday I've spent a very long lunch speaking with the music composer extraordinaire Edgar Barrosso. He is a Phd student studying music composition in the the Music Department at Harvard and leads Harvard's Group for New Music

Speaking with Edgar, who was my resident advisor last year, is alway a thrilling experience. After I speak with him I often think for an hour about what he said and it was certainly the case this time. Our conversation somehow drifted to the topic of who is the best music composer and he gave me a surprising answer. He said that for him Beethoven is the absolute best, second to absolutely no one and by far and wide so. The answer was surprising because the music Edgar makes seems very distant from the likes of Beethoven's music. 

Here is a sample of it:
The gadget you added is not valid

Even more surprising was the reason he gave me for his choice. He argued that Beethoven is the best not because of his music per se. It is not about the melody at all. It is what is inside the music, inside the melody that matters so much. He pointed me to this video of the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who is the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world and who makes very forcefully the same point. 

To learn more about Edgar and his music visit his website at http://edgarbarroso.net/

Polymorphic octopus

posted Nov 1, 2010, 6:23 PM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Nov 1, 2010, 6:34 PM ]

This makes the chameleon look so last century. Thanks Rory for sharing this.

Primitive history of religions. A second look at Durkheim

posted Oct 30, 2010, 8:19 AM by Florin-Stefan Morar   [ updated Oct 30, 2010, 8:46 AM ]

The elementary forms of religious life by Emile Durkheim, which appeared almost a century ago, can be seen as the first systematic attempt to ground philosophically and give authority to sociology. The book is also important for its impact on the way we think religion. The categories of the sacred of the profane have become the corner stone of the history of religions. In addition, the bold relativistic epistemology expounded in the book has been retaken by the sociology of scientific knowledge and the history of science.

One of the most provocative ideas in the book, which I think deserves closer attention, is that by analysing religion we can not only understand science but also our world in general. 

The way Durkheim defines religion should be understood as part of his strategy to legitimize sociology as a discipline. Religion is a preferential object of study to sociology not because of its social historical particularity, but because it reveals something fundamental about the way our present society works. The assumption Durkheim makes is that in order to understand a society (for Durkheim the society) the sociologist should study its origins. Primitive religion, because of its simplicity is the perfect choice as an object of study. 

This framing of sociology as a science of the present goes against historicist sensibilities. Durkheim concept of primitive religion appears highly questionable from this perspective. 

The primitive religion that Durkheim studies is in no way primitive, an early religion. Totemism was after all discovered only in the 19th century, after Christianity was long established. Historically there was nothing early about that religion outside of the assumption that it could be seen as corresponding to an early religion.  

In applying the term primitive to religions of the natives in colonial settings Durkheim builds sociology around a myth of the enlightenment. Colonial settings were interpreted originally through the lens of the myth of the Christian paradise. They represented the promised land at the beginning of time. Travelling from Europe towards the colonies was not only a spatial travel but also a temporal one. This was later codified in the distinctions between modern and pre-modern. Although existing at the same time chronologically American, African and European societies were deemed to be pre-modern, temporally backwards, although in fact only differently developed. 

This tacit assumption is central to Durkheim’s book. The religion of Australian natives from the 19th century is understood by him as the most primitive form of religion. In addition this religion is supposed to represent the original form of religion from which all other religions developed. This critical aspect, nevertheless, confirms in a way one of Durkheim’s other theses, that space and time are social constructs. The 19th century European society Durkheim was part of, imagined Europe as the center of the world and temporally the most advanced – the newest society, while going from Europe towards the periphery meant going back towards the oldest society.

This begs the question whether religion can be understood unitarily and systematically through a single theory. What if “primitive” religions were equivalent to modern ones in their complexity, if religions in different times and spaces are invariably different from each other, and if they suit only their specific conditions, without revealing anything relevant about the way we live now? If answering affirmatively these questions would produce a more accurate history of religions, it would also render religion less relevant and would remove the deep interest we might have in studying it. 

1-10 of 22