A.M.'s Myth and Folklore Blog

Myth and Folklore ML-3043-996

Month: September 2019 (page 1 of 2)

Week 6 StoryLab: Storybook Research

VLBI (very-long-baseline interferometry) radio telescopes at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Disclaimer: I’m playing fast-and-loose with physics in the following and in my storybook for the sake of style, narrative convenience, the broad background of the readers, and my own ignorance: I’m a half-baked mathematician, not a physicist, so I’m also coming at this all from a very different angle than a physicist would.

To get a sense of the… “disagreements among friends” between mathematicians and physicists, consider this quote from Einstein:

Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.

Albert Einstein (1949)

The Arecibo Observatory is a radio telescope — it receives and resolves EM (electromagnetic) waves at radio frequencies, which are those ranging from the mid kHz (thousands of oscillations per second) all the way into the upper GHz and beyond (gigahertz, billions of oscillations per second). Radio waves have lower frequencies than visible light, which ranges roughly from 430-750 THz (see here).

(Visible light, ionizing radiation, ultraviolet rays, microwaves, and radio are all just names for different frequencies of electromagnetic waves: at some level, they are all the same.)

Because the frequencies of radio waves are so much lower than those of visible light, their wavelengths — the amount of physical space a single repetition, or period, of the wave “takes up” — are much larger. What does this mean in practice? While something as small as our eyes or a camera lens can spatial and spectrally discriminate visible light, much, much larger “cameras” are needed to see radio with any kind of clarity. This is why Arecibo is so large.

(These days, from what I understand, single large-dish receivers like Arecibo have gone out of favor and have been replaced largely by complex mathematical interpolation among large arrays of spaced out smaller receiver disks. This has great scientific advantages, and has enabled a great number of breakthroughs, but lacks drama. And drama, of course, is our goal.)

Radio telescope “image” of the center of our very own Milky Way Galaxy. (Image from Wikipedia.)

The sheer scale of a telescope like Arecibo presents significant difficulties in, well, pointing it at the things one wants to see. To some extent, it can only see what’s “right in front of it.” Radio telescope astronomy is further complicated by the fact that the radio waves must pass through Earth’s atmosphere before arriving at the telescope, and the atmosphere is anything but transparent to those radio waves. Some are fully blocked, others attenuated; weak signals from far-off galaxies commingle, cancel, and interfere with television signals, military radar, atmospheric events and weather, and that local classic rock 97.3 FM station you wish would stop playing the same three Rush songs over and over.

Arecibo ­and radio astronomy’s list of achievements is long and fascinating; one example of many is that, in 1989, Arecibo produced the first ever radar image of an asteroid, the “potentially hazardous” (if you’re feeling like panicing about something tonight) 4769 Castalia. (See here.)

A radio telescope also detected the as-yet-unexplained “Wow!” signal in 1977, an exceptionally strong burst of radio signal lasting some 72 seconds at the “hydrogen line” — 1420.41 MHz, the emission frequency of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. It came from somewhere over Sagittarius-way. Though it was simply a burst of radio energy — not any kind of encoded message — it remains the strongest candidate for an extraterrestrial broadcast ever observed, and no explanation for its origin has ever been widely accepted.

Original data printout of the “Wow!” signal. (Image from Ohio History Connection via Wikipedia.)

P.S.: Well, there have been some rather convincing explanations for the “Wow!” signal: this recent (2017) paper by Antonio Paris finds that a hydrogen cloud that follows around a particular pair of pesky comets fits the bill, and retroactive orbital calculations reveal that they were in the right place at the right time in 1977 to play that funky music, so to speak.

Week 6 Reading: Panchatantra, Part B

Source: The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, translated by Arthur W. Ryder. Text from the course UnTextbook.

  • For this reading notes post I chose the story-within-a-story of the Mice that Ate Iron, a fable about lying and greed.
  • The story features Naduk, a merchant who has hit on hard times and goes abroad to restore his fortune.
  • To fund his travels and towards his hopes of restoring his fortune, he pawns an balance-beam of pure heavy iron that he inherited from his forefathers to a merchant named Lakshman.
  • Naduk travels far and wide to restore his fortunes, and eventually returns home. Upon returning, he goes to Lakshman to repay his debt and retrieve the balance bar.
  • Lakshman tells him that, unfortunately, he cannot return the iron balance bar since it has been eaten by mice.
  • Naduk is aware that this is ridiculous, but plays along for the sake of revenge. He asks that Lakshman’s son assist him in carrying his belongings down to the river, where he wishes to bathe.
  • They go down to the river, but instead of bathing, Naduk traps Lakshman’s son in a cave. Returning to town, he tells Lakshman that his son was, regrettably, carried off by a hawk.
  • Lakshman cries out that this is impossible, and how could a hawk carry off a man of his son’s stature? but Naduk counters, asking how a mouse could possibly gnaw away a beam of iron.
  • They go to the town magistrate, who hears out both sides of the story and laughs, finally ordering a return of son and balance bar alike to the appropriate men.
  • Stylistically, as with all other stories in this collection, narration is interspersed with bits of philosophy and anecdotes done out in verse that serve to underscore and repeat the morals told by the main story. (I really like the effect it gives.)
Teeth of diamond? (Image of a house mouse from Wikipedia.)

Week 6 Reading: Panchatantra, Part A

Source: The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, translated by Arthur W. Ryder. Text from the course UnTextbook.

  • What a great sentence: “This king had three sons. Their names were Rich-Power, Fierce-Power, Endless-Power, and they were supreme blockheads.”
  • For these reading notes I chose the story of Numskull.
  • I have to wonder whether the name numskull was chosen given the lion’s foolishness or whether this story is the origin of the term numskull…
  • A foolish, greedy lion is king in part of the forest. He kills the other animals without pause or restraint.
  • The animals, unable to bear this continued onslaught, strike a deal with Numskull that each day they will send him one animal for his insatiable appetite and that, in return, he will cease to slaughter without pause or reason.
  • The lion agrees to these terms, but threatens that if an animal is not found at his den every day, he will kill and eat all the animals.
  • The agreement works for a time, but eventually it comes to the day when the rabbit is sent to the lion for dinner. The rabbit, clever and strong-willed, does not want to accept his fate and ponders how he can end the lion’s reign of terror.
  • Arriving late at the lion’s den, the rabbit is the target of Numskull’s ire, and insists that he will now kill all the animals.
  • The rabbit, a quick thinker, comes up with both a plan and an excuse: he tells Numskull that, en route, he was accosted by another lion who disputes Numskull’s dominance of the forest.
  • Numskull insists on being taken to this challenger and spares the rabbit for this purpose; the clever rabbit can now enact his plan. He leads Numskull to a deep pool of water and, showing Numskull his own reflection, declares that this is his challenger.
  • Numskull, seeing a very fearsome challenger indeed, roars but sees his reflection roaring with equal anger. He then decides that this must not stand, and jumps into the water to fight his opponent. He then drowns, freeing the animals of the forest from his tyranny.
The lion and his reflection. (Image from the Kalila-wa-Dimna manuscript, via the course blog.)

Week 5 Review

My favorite graphic from this week’s class announcements was Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Alice meeting the Caterpillar, from Alice in Wonderland:

The video I watched was “What makes a hero?,” a TED-Ed talk by Matthew Winkler. This is a popular introduction to the concept of the “Hero’s Journey,” a supposedly universal progression of myths and popular stories. It’s a nicely put together video, but I’m skeptical of the framework itself: people are very good at rationalizing, and I think that the framework is so general that it is fairly uninteresting that so many stories can be contorted into its form. Still, I enjoyed the video.

Storybook Plan

Story sources and the three possible stories can be found in my Storybook Research post.

Structurally, I want to use a frame story of “astronomers in the office” — each story from myth and folklore will be told by someone on the scientific or technical staff after being reminded of it by some technical question or conversation. I think the resulting juxtaposition will be interesting, and I think that filtering some of these ancient myths through the diction and style of modern scientific culture could yield some interesting results.

I’m also planning to outline an underlying theme of scientific uncertainty, especially at its frontiers. To some extent this is unfair: astronomy has a much better track record than some other fields that I’m (metaphorically) taking aim at and much smaller consequences for their mistakes. Astronomy is also not my field, nor one with which I am very familiar, so apologies to it — the wealth of ancient stories about the night sky just made it perfect for this concept. (It is also true that the types of fallacies and mistakes have meaningful overlap between scientific fields, so the whole does still work as a metaphor.)

Stylistically, I also want to make much of the contrast between the technical language and the mythological language and tropes of the stories; that part, I think, will practically write itself.

Storybook Comment Wall

Part of the radiotelescope apparatus. (Image from Wikipedia.)

My Storybook can be found here: Ad Astra, Ad Antiquitas

Week 5 Story: Buried for Forgetting

A Photo Essay on the Great Depression

Land oughta be green, Joseph thought.

It wasn’t. No matter which way he looked across the flat plains all he saw was brown, dead dirt. Just brown, far as the eye could see.

I’m like an ant on a massive oak table. Now Joseph, that sounds like somethin’ they’d read out of a book by the fire way back when. At least when I can’t fill Mary’s stomach with nothin’ I can fill her head with worthless little bits of philosophohfizin’.

He’d long given up on the fields or selling anything in town — the ground was too dead and barren to even hope. But Joseph had found a patch of ground less abused than the rest and had planted a small garden; it was something, maybe enough to get through the winter what with the hard tack and preserves they had saved. Or at least something to eat on the road when they left.

Humming tunelessly, he thrust the hoe again into the ground, turning up soil that looked almost dark, almost wet, almost like life hadn’t quite given up here yet.

Up and down went the hoe, sinking its teeth into the softer soil. Until… clank.

Startled from the meditative state his repetitive work had brought on, Joseph reached down and saw a corner of dark, burnished metal. Pushing dirt away with his hands, he quickly enough found himself holding a small canister, no more than a foot around, made of heavy, rough lead and weighing more than it had any right to.

That’s right odd.

Usually folks bury things for a reason. Sometimes to forget ’em, sometimes to keep ’em.

Let’s hope thisun was buried for keepin’.

Joseph pried against the seal, trying to get a purchase when, with a sudden crack, the lid gave way. Jumping back, he watched as the canister hit the ground. It was silent all around and for a moment it looked as if the thing was empty.

Then dark blue smoke began to curl, then pour, from the opening of the canister. Joseph just stood, dumbstruck.

The smoke, at first seeming to billow outwards without form, cleared as quickly as it came and left a translucent human form, no less than some eight feet tall, looming over the staring man.

Hell’s bells.

“Four hundred years!” cried the spirit.

And it talks too… Lord in Heaven, judge me kindly.

“Four. Hundred. Years.” it spat, ephemeral flames licking up its legs with each word. “Trapped all that time.”

“Well, you’re out now,” Joseph said.

Idiot. Damned fool, you always had too quick a tongue.

“Anything else you wish to say before I kill you, blathering fool?”

Its eyes bored into him.

“Hold on now, hold on — kill me? Me? What’d I ever do to you? I just let you out!”

“I will grant you the choice of the manner of your death. Speak!”

Fumbling, delaying, and still unbelieving, Joseph did, indeed, speak:

“Now, uh, mister — sir — uh, well, I don’t quite understand, you see? Who — what — who are you? And, uh, how’d you find yourself in that ugly old milkcan in the first place? Now I know…”

He put me there. Oh, how I would rend him limb from limb. King of my kind, tyrant of us all — I had him! But, betrayed in the final moment, I was taken, punished, and confined to that awful vessel. For a hundred years I raged. For another hundred I swore any wish and any boon to him that would rescue me. For another hundred I swore myself in eternal servitude to my eventual rescuer. For another hundred, rotting in my prison, I swore death on him that had waited so long to find me. You.

“What, me? I didn’t wait, I don’t even —”

Now hold on.

“How’d you even fit in that there thing anyway?”


“I don’t believe that… what a load of hogwash. Ain’t no way all of you fit in that tiny little thing there for four hundred years.”

Joseph let out a forced laugh.

Indignant, the spirit spiraled down into the vessel, crying out:

“Fool! My forms are endless, there is no limit to my abilities.”

The last of these words were muffled as Joseph slapped the cover of the canister back on and quickly closed the latches. A muffled screaming could be heard from inside, slowly growing fainter…

Dusk came and found Joseph sitting on the ground, hoe in hand, slowly regaining his calm. Eventually a small smile crept over his face.

You clever bastard, you. Just wait till Mary hears this!

Author’s Note: I thought I’d transpose the story of the poor fisherman and the genie out into the dustbowl. I don’t quite know how or why I thought of that, but here it is. I don’t know if there’s anything in Native American folklore analogous to a genie, which is why I just called it a spirit and left it at that.

(And yes, the spelling of “philosophohfizin‘” is intentional, sound it out.)

Story Source: “The Story of the Fisherman” from Arabian Nights, sourced from the course UnTextbook.

Image Source: University of Illinois Department of English, “A Photo Essay on the Great Depression.”

Week 5 Reading: Arabian Nights, Part B

Source: Arabian Nights from the course UnTextbook.

The princess trades lamps with the magician. (Image from the UnTextbook.)
  • Obviously this whole section of reading is one story, but I chose to focus my notes on the magicians plot for revenge (part #4).
  • It eventually comes to the attention of the magician, back in Africa, that Aladdin has married the princess and is living in great opulence with the sultan’s favor.
  • Knowing Aladdin, he correctly presumes that this is the result of sorcery, which can only mean that Aladdin has the lamp.
  • The magician leaves Africa immediately and travels day and night until he reaches the city where Aladdin is, determined to effect his revenge and retrieve his lamp.
  • In the city, he hears of Aladdin’s palace and is only further enraged, but he quickly thinks of a scheme: finding that Aladdin is away hunting, he disguises himself as a foolish old man and goes through the city offering to trade new lamps for old ones.
  • The citizenry follow him and make a to-do over the foolish old man who would give up new lamps for rusting old ones; the princess hears the commotion from the palace as he passes and asks what is happening.
  • Hearing of the old man, the princess is as entertained as the townsfolk, and, seeing the old, burnished lamp of the genie on the mantle, she decides to humor the old man and goes out to exchange it with him.
  • The magician, now having the genie in his possession, has it use its powers to transport him, the palace, and the princess back to Africa.
  • The sultan awakens the next morning to find both gone and believes the vizir when he accuses Aladdin of enchantment. The sultan sends for Aladdin and has him brought in chains, where Aladdin begs for forty days in which to find the princess, agreeing to return at the end of that period to face death at the sultan’s hands.

Week 5 Reading: Arabian Nights, Part A

Source: Arabian Nights from the course UnTextbook.

Etching from the original publication of this translation/retelling. (Image from the course UnTextbook.)
  • I chose “The Story of the Fisherman” for today’s reading notes.
  • In this segment, Scheherazade has just convinced the sultan to allow her to tell another story, this one more marvelous even than those before. Gaining his consent, she enters into the story of the fisherman.
  • A poor fisherman is trying to haul up a catch to feed his family, but time after time his nets come back with nothing but trash and refuse.
  • Finally, after pulling in his nets for the fourth time, the fisherman finds an ornate yellowed pot, heavy and sealed with lead.
  • Relieved to have found something for his day’s labor, the fisherman opens the pot to see what he has found and if he can sell it for coin with which he can buy wheat.
  • At first the pot seems to be empty, but then columns of smoke begin to billow out from it, eventually resolving themselves into the shape of a great and powerful genie.
  • The genie swears to the fisherman that he is bound to kill him. The fisherman begs for his life but the genie is resolved, finally, the fisherman asks to know before he dies how the genie got trapped in the first place.
  • The genie says that he rebelled against the king of the genies and was trapped in the pot as punishment; after waiting many centuries to be freed, he became frustrated and swore to kill whoever eventually freed him.
  • The fisherman again begs for his life, but, upon being again rejected, thinks of a plan: he asks the genie whether he really was in the small pot and, incredulous, asks that the genie demonstrate how an enormous being of his kind could possibly fit in such a small space.
  • The genie reenters the pot to demonstrate and the fisherman quickly replaces the lid, trapping the genie and saving his own life.

Week 4 StoryLab: Advice to Writers

Jon Winokur’s “Advice to Writers” blog has a wealth of fun, insightful, and very useful tips, tricks, and reflections about writing, and in browsing it I found many things I had thought about writing before staring back up at me from the page, so to speak.

Two quotes in particular stood out to me. The first, from Emmanuel Carrère, says that “everything is worth writing” and attacks the self-censorship and shame that so often accompanies the prospect of making a half-formed idea “official” by putting it to paper. As has so often been said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and I think that nowhere does this apply so much as writing.

It’s true that writing is, from one angle, a process of communication and transfer of ideas, but from another perspective, it is really an exercise in the development, crystallization, and structuring of ideas. Communication is just an accidental side effect. Ever since I learned to be less afraid of putting pen to paper, I have been able to develop my ideas with so much more ease, even if those notes are never seen, never read, and never referred to again.

The second quote that struck me was from Elizabeth Gilbert writing in opposition to the “German, romantic idea that if you’re not in pain, and if you’re not causing pain by making your art, then you’re not really doing it right.” This Germanic concept and its centrality to current notions of intellectualism have always bothered me deeply. The notion that pain and distress are necessary or sufficient to make art, I believe, is nonsense. Suffering in the making or the experiencing does not make something art, though it can be an important part of making and experiencing some — but not all! — art.

The Bohemian. The term is these days often celebrated by people who tend to share in the idea that art is pain, and vice versa. (Painting by Renoir, image from Wikipedia — incidentally the painting is currently in Germany.)

This is a great blog full of great quotes, and I’m bookmarking it to keep coming back!

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