Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 18th, 2017

Eclipsing the truth

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Take a good look at this comic strip. I’ve erased the date and the copyright information, but it should still be possible to figure out the precise day on which it first appeared, using nothing but the resources in your average local library. Even if you aren’t a Peanuts buff, it wouldn’t be hard to verify the historical window in which the strip originally ran, or to infer, based on the style, that this installment was published sometime in the sixties. On the assumption that it refers to a real solar eclipse that generated a fair amount of attention in the United States, you could plausibly deduce that it was the eclipse of July 20, 1963, and that this strip was printed the day before. And you’d be right. It wasn’t even a total eclipse when seen from America, but it still created enough of a lingering sensation to be mentioned both on Mad Men and in John Updike’s Couples, in which he writes of “that summer of the solar eclipse”:

Three weeks ago, it had been ninety percent at their latitude. An invisible eater moved through the sun’s disc amid a struggle of witnessing clouds. The dapples of light beneath the elm became crescent-shaped; the birds sang as in the evening. Seen through smoked glass the sun was a shaving, a sideways eyebrow, a kindergarten boat riding a tumult of contorted cumulus. The false dusk reversed; the horns of the crescents beneath the trees pointed in the opposite direction; the birds sang to greet the day. Not a month before, [Piet] had first slept with Foxy.

This is part of Updike’s standard narrative strategy, which is to place his protagonist’s extramarital dalliances against a backdrop of recent historical events. But even if you removed all other topical references from the novel except the eclipse, future literary critics would still be able to determine the date—within a month or so—in which Piet and Foxy began their affair.

Eclipses are useful that way. In a fascinating essay with the dry title “Some Uses of Eclipses in Early Modern Chronology,” the historian Anthony Grafton writes: “To this day eclipses provide historians with the best tools they have for fixing the absolute dates of events in ancient and medieval history…[They] form part of every ancient and medieval historian’s normal toolbox.” The earliest chronologist to draw upon eclipse data in a systematic fashion was Heinrich Bünting, who, in the late sixteenth century, used the Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold to put together a timeline of the world. “Bünting treated eclipses as facts like any other, except that they were more certain,” Grafton notes, quoting a revealing passage:

I had to examine the eclipses of the sun and moon and observations of other celestial motions. For they reveal chronological intervals with absolute precision. Two forms of computation are the most certain of all: that which is undertaken with sacred scripture, and that which is undertaken through the intervals of eclipses. If authors disagree with one another, you should see which of them agrees more properly with the chronological interval revealed by the eclipses. You will find it safest to follow him.

“Even the most reliable ancient texts, in other words, required the confirmation of the heavens,” Grafton observes, “and eclipses, which could be dated not only to the year and day, but to the hour and moment, provided this in its most precise form.” And the sentence in which Bünting cites both “sacred scripture” and “the intervals of eclipses” in the same breath feels like a moment in which science simultaneously looks, like Janus, into the past and the future.

Bünting used eclipses, Grafton writes, to provide fixed points for “human events that floated loosely in the ancient sources, located only by season or by regnal year,” including the conception of Romulus and Remus and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Grafton concludes: “Long before eclipses lost their theoretical standing as signs, they had mutated in one kind of learned practice into facts of a particular, undramatic kind.” But when you attack the foundations of the eclipses themselves, a lot of that drama returns. If you’ve spent any time poking into conspiracy theories online, you’ve probably come across the New Chronology, a theory associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that claims that nearly all of recorded history occurred within the last nine hundred years or so, and that any events attributed to dates before the eleventh century are either accidental distortions or deliberate forgeries. I had always assumed that this argument could be debunked simply by looking at historical eclipses, but it turns out that eclipses were actually where Fomenko started. In the delightfully titled History: Fiction or Science?, Fomenko writes:

One often hears the question about what could possibly motivate a mathematician into wanting to study a seemingly historical problem. The answer is as follows. My primary interests are those of a professional mathematician; they are thus rather distant from historical and chronological issues. However, in the early seventies, namely in 1972-1973, I had to deal with the dates of ancient eclipses during my studies of one of the key problems in celestial mechanics.

Drawing on the results of the astronomer Robert Newton and the Russian scientist N.A. Morozov, Fomenko concluded that the conventional dates for many ancient eclipses were incorrect, which inexorably led him, he writes, to an even more audacious question: “The satisfaction from having finished a body of scientific work was accompanied by a sudden awareness of a very knotty point arising in this respect, one of great peculiarity and paramount importance. Namely, that of whether the consensual chronology of ancient history was to be trusted at all.”

Fomenko and his colleagues proceeded to wade into an insane morass of theorizing, spread across seven huge volumes, that frankly makes my head hurt. (Just browsing though the first book, which is available in full online, is a disorienting, sometimes amazing experience.) Refuting it here would take more room and time than I can afford, but it’s worth noting that Fomenko’s work has inescapable political overtones. As James H. Billington writes in Russia in Search of Itself, many of its adherents are drawn to its vision of a Eurasian Union with Russia at its center:

Using dating techniques and probability theory, [Fomenko and his colleague Gleb Nosovsky] conclude that the Russian and Mongol empires were, in fact, one and the same entity during the two hundred and fifty years wrongly referred to as the period of the “Mongol yoke.” Accordingly, “Russia and Turkey are parts of a previously single empire.” This astonishing conclusion is part of Nosovsky and Fomenko’s “new chronology” of world history that uses equations and graphs to cast in doubt the accepted views on much of premodern times…They argue that almost nothing in the traditional view of Russian history prior to the fourteenth century can be factually verified…All of this might have been quietly blown away in the wind tunnels of academia had not the popular chess hero Garry Kasparov lustily taken up the cause of the new chronology…[i]nsisting that “whoever controls the past, controls the future.”

Billington quotes the archeologist V.L. Yanin, who tries to explain why Fomenko’s views have become popular in certain circles: “We live in an epoch of total non-professionalism, which spreads through the entire society from the power structures to the lowest levels of the educational system. The ordinary school produces dilettantes who assume that their miserable and faulty knowledge is adequate for judging professionals. A society bought up on scandals craves negativity and shock effects. It craves the sleight-of-hand trickery of a David Copperfield or an Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.” That has a familiar ring to it. And as we all gather to watch the solar eclipse next week, we should take a minute to remember that with the right motivation, even something as unequivocal as an eclipse can turn into an alternative fact.

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Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

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