Reality is Not What it Seems – Carlo Rovelli

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Reality is not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli begins with a brief history of man’s ideas about how the physical world works. It then introduces modern theories about the quantum world, and about the loop theory of gravity.

Rovelli begins in classical Greece with Democritus, who first conceived of the idea of atoms. Rovelli claims that Democritus’ reasoning still holds good today – the world cannot be infinitely divided, but is made up, finally, of small indivisible parts. Rovelli compares Democritus favourably with other Greek philosophers such as Plato, whose idea of reality is is quite absurd in comparison. He mourns the fact that we only know of Democritus through what was written about him by other ancients, as none of his work has survived.

Rovelli writes a history of physical science covering the major figures – Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Heisenberg. This is brief and interesting. There are various anecdotes to keep the reader going, and the explanations of the science are clear and fairly easy.

He concludes each section with a simple diagram showing how these scientists and their peers conceived of the world at each stage of the process of discovery. Ideas such as space, time, particles and fields have all been used by physicists to describe reality, but the intention has always been to offer the most simplified interpretation. The introduction of quantum mechanics reduced the world to two key ideas – spacetime and quantum fields and Rovelli claims that these two have now been reduced to one. The world is made of covariant quantum fields!!

Reality is Not What it Seems is a convincing and inspiring book. Years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and found there were parts I could not understand. Since then I have read many books on this subject, and they have cast some light into the darkness, but this has perhaps been the best. Here are two others:

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll

Why Does e=mc squared?

The issue of Schrödinger’s cat has always puzzled me. How can something exist and not exist at the same time? But Rovelli steers the reader round this issue quite simply. He then goes on to give an elegant explanation of how two particles can be linked whilst being far apart. This had been another stumbling block for me. But Rovelli makes it all very simple, and at the same time introduces the reader to some of the basics of information theory.

Rovelli goes on to explain why there is no such thing as infinity. At the smallest level, even when squashed in a black hole there is a limit to how small something can be. The size of the Planck constant, or some equation involving that, comes in there. At the other end of the scale, whilst vast numbers, beyond our comprehension may appear infinite, there is a finite number of particles.

The universe is an expanding bubble of quantum particles. Within that, like bubbles of soap, it consists of interlinked networks of matter. At the quantum level the world is a cloud of possibilities. Particles gather together in a cloud of uncertainty and become things or people. That’s all there is.

It is no surprise that as an Italian, Rovelli is quite critical of religion. I say that because the organised and politicised forms of religion must have been prominent in Italy, the land of the popes. The imposition of dogma is at the expense of true Christianity. Galileo is an example that would strike a scientist like Rovelli very hard.

For him religion is a myth, it’s just the tales the old men of the tribe tell. Only science can be true. Everything is a mystery. If science has not solved the mystery now, it will one day.

Rovelli seems very confident about this. But I’m not sure whether in the end science will replace religion. It does not look that way to me, in the USA or the Middle East! It seems there is a need for religion. Maybe that is just human weakness, or superstition.

But the environment, indeed the world, is in a parlous state,and science is just a tool. The so called myths of the Old Testament prophets, in the form of the three religions of the book, dominate the world. It is a truth that works. The clouds of particles that believe and have faith have prospered and grown, like the Bible said they would.

At times religion becomes corrupted, but we need it. It embodies the values of love, compassion and stewardship, which science can never have.

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Dirty Glory – Pete Greig

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Dirty Glory, or Red Moon Chronicles#2, is a sequel to Red Moon Rising, and brings the reader up to date with the story of the continuing growth of the 24/7 prayer movement.

Pete Greig has an exceptional ability to bring a scene or a situation to life with a few key words or a vivid description, and this makes the stories he tells in this book credible and vivid for the reader.

He had begun as a child to pray in faith, and he describes the experiences which taught him that God was real, and that prayer could be answered.

On holiday as a young man in Portugal, at the most western point in Europe, Greig had a vision in which he saw thousands of ghostly figures rising up in prayer. He did not understand the meaning of this at the time, though it was to become clear to him in later years when he was involved in founding the 24/7 prayer movement.

In this book Greig fills in the details of the growth of 24/7 as it expanded its work into Mexico, Ibiza and the USA. The book is autobiographical, and Greig offers many personal insights. As new characters are introduced he tells the stories of how they came to God, always with the emphasis on prayer, the Bible, and God’s presence and support. There are striking stories here that show God is not concerned with past mistakes or bourgeois conformity, and Greig has a knack of bringing the characters to life with wit and humour. He is not an ordinary writer, and has considerable talent.

Greig describes his arrival in the USA where he went to develop the movement, and shares the problems he and his wife faced with family illness. She developed a brain tumour, which was an incredible challenge, to say the least! Meanwhile his infant son swallowed some of the very powerful tablets prescribed for her condition, yet miraculously avoided death. For Greig, God was always there during the trials.

Dirty Glory gives many examples of people brought to faith, and shows the power and influence of prayer in this respect.

In one university residence, due to the prayers of a single student, every member gave their life to Christ. Elsewhere a young woman set off alone to a Mexican border town to pray for the prostitutes and drug dealers living there in a neglected ghetto. It seemed a hopeless task, but she remained for eighteen months, continued to pray, and slowly became aware of the transforming effect her words were having on the lives of the inhabitants.

For Greig, Europe is the most difficult missionary field of our time. In Ibiza many young people were saved from the dangerous consequences of their own actions. Rather than being left in a vulnerable position when found helpless, ill or drunk on the streets, they were ferried back to hotels, or given other kinds of support. Gospels were distributed, and though not always used appropriately, or fully understood by the recipients, the scheme impacted on a group that is hard to reach.

The tattooed and pierced new Christians in Ibiza were not always welcomed in the local churches and so a new church was established for them. Greig explains how God was present in the decision to go ahead with this project, showing how if we listen, pray, and read the Bible, it becomes easier for God to guide us.

Greig has shown incredible faith in his own life, and explains that faith and prayer have a key role to play in the world today. The answers to prayer in the Bible were not just of their time: God is here now and will act.

This book is called Dirty Glory because Christ was here in the flesh. He had dirt in the creases of his hands, and made tables. At first, Greig claims, he probably did not make them very well!! Christ is there with us in the coal face, or the chalk face of life. Wherever it is you spend your day, that is where you are his representative, where you are his hands. You need to get them dirty for him – get involved.

God is not interested in religious activity for its own sake, but in righteousness and justice – I despise your religious assemblies – your festivals are a stench to me…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream Amos 5: 21-23

 

 

 

 

 

To War with Wellington – Peter Snow (or how the Tories snuffed out democracy again)

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To War with Wellington is a direct and straightforward summary of the war in Spain, France and Belgium beginning with the landing of the British force in Portugal in 1808, and culminating in Waterloo. There are many contemporary accounts of the events of this period, and Snow draws directly on these to produce his version. He presents different viewpoints, though these are mostly British. Even the stories of looting and plunder come from the pens of British writers in diaries, letters and reminiscences, including letters Wellington himself sent back to London condemning the actions of his troops.

Snow relies on some key sources, so we meet the same characters on different battlefields and at different places, and they include a variety of types of people: there are some common soldiers, surprisingly literate and articulate considering the general lack of education in this period, and, unsurprisingly, officers and generals with their own more narrow points of view.

Snow offers clear diagrams of battles, and these are very helpful in communicating the key strategic and tactical decisions Wellington made, and there are a couple of larger scale maps that show his progress through Portugal and Spain. These are also really useful.

To War with Wellington is a lively and interesting account. Snow chooses quotations from his different sources wisely, focusing on dramatic events expressed in colourful language. He links these direct and indirect quotations with his own summaries of events, and moves the narrative along quickly. The narrative structure is pretty straightforward – a chronological account starting with the British troops landing north of Lisbon during a storm when they have to ride the surf to the beach, and finishing with the defeat of the French at Waterloo.

We are given a detailed picture of Wellington, starting with some basic physical attributes, and it’s almost a warts and all portrayal. Snow is honest about Wellington’s appearance, and the rather dreary and cautious approach he took to the war in Spain, especially in the early years. He received criticism for this and it’s possible the war lasted longer than it needed as at key points, such as after taking Madrid in 1812, Wellington retreated to Portugal to safeguard his rear and consolidate his position. Snow is also  honest about Wellington’s failing marriage, and his romantic liaisons with a variety of foreign women firstly in Spain, then later in Brussels, as well as in 1814 during his brief tenure as ambassador in Paris, where apparently he shared a couple of Napoleon’s old flames.

The Peninsular war was not Crimea, or WW1, but there were many casualties and these are covered in great and often horrific detail as might be expected. Exploding shells apparently became prominent at this time, and as in any war, technology played a big part. Wellington was given a great advantage by the deployment of the 1st/95th rifle brigade, whose story is told in a Mark Urban book, Rifles: Six Years With Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters. The range of their guns was perhaps double that of the traditional musket used by the French.

To be honest the bravery of the soldiers in these wars astounded me. They besieged towns and attacked them in what can only be described as shocking conditions and often with little prospect of surviving the battle. The first to attack were named the forlorn hope, as this described their chances of returning alive, and at Badajoz the carnage was appalling. It reminded me unfortunately of the comic poem by Thomas Hood, Faithless Nellie Gray:

At duty’s call I left my legs
In Badajoz’s breaches.

-a wry pun that Hood develops in all kinds of clever but I suppose cruel ways throughout the poem.

It’s hard to explain the bravery of these men and I suppose that’s down to their patriotism, and a sense of camaraderie or esprit de corps that narrowed their world. They were soldiers and would have wanted to be valued as such: often their horizons were limited to that. But in many ways it could be argued that these were men fighting against their own best interests.

 

The war against France, begun in the 1790s, was essentially a rearguard action by the royal families of Europe designed to protect their privileges. The Whigs in parliament were much more supportive of Napoleon’s political philosophy, but the Tories under Liverpool and Castlereagh were quite opposed to those liberal views, and their triumph dictated the development of Europe in the period following the war. It led to another hundred years of servitude for Russian peasants, and of course to the final cruel and violent end to the Tzars in 1918.

In 1815, before Waterloo, with Napoleon defeated and on Elba, the victorious Tory government under Lord Liverpool introduced the Corn Laws to protect the interests of the landed classes, another direct expression of their political philosophy. It lead four years later to the massacre, on the fields of Peterloo in Manchester, of working men dressed in their Sunday best and protesting about the price of bread. Meanwhile, at the battle of Waterloo the Polish were fighting alongside the French, recognising the opportunity Napoleon gave them for independence from the crowned heads of Europe. The French soldiers too were fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity – fighting for the legal rights embodied in the Napoleonic code, and for the opportunities for education and advancement that it offered them – opportunities written in their constitution, and denied their British counterparts at that time.

Of course victory at Waterloo also ensured the triumph of Britain, giving us pre-eminence in a world in which British industrial and scientific power guaranteed a technological advantage over less industrialised countries, and made victory secure. We can all enjoy that history, built on the ironically named thin red line, the blood of the British infantry, but the Empire was a myth for the factory worker and the farm labourer.

The poor did not share in the benefits of Empire, though they may have seen it at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and again in the Festival of Britain. It was a country that worked for the wealthy but not for those on the Jarrow marches, on means tested benefits in 1930s Britain or in the Preston in 1854 that inspired Dickens’ Hard Times.

In Britain we are disadvantaged, as we do not have a written constitution, unlike the rest of Europe. There are no hard rules to protect our rights, just grace and favour and tradition. The Tories can plan a bonfire of regulations – workers’ rights, environmental protection and so on, and parliament is sovereign, can override any of these rights even though we value them.

In Germany, after their experiences with Hitler, referenda are not allowed under the constitution, but the right to remain in Europe has been stolen by 37% of the electorate, or a slim majority, in a referendum that, because it was only advisory, not binding on parliament, was seen as no threat to the constitution or to our rights. But it was a threat. Sixty plus percent would have been the internationally recognised supermajority, usually required for constitutional change. It might have left a less divided nation, and a country where the young would have felt happier. At the same time we have a Tory PM who is threatening to take away our human rights, as if that were some kind of vote winning proposition. We really did lose, at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Landmark Herodotus – Robert B Straussler

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World Map according to Herodotus
The Landmark Herodotus is a complete edition of the famous histories which tell the story of the conflict between Persia and Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

At the heart of these histories is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child, when I read and re-read a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan Leonidas, held up the advance of the Persian army long enough for the Greeks to ready the defence of Athens and the Peloponnese. It’s a story that has been told and retold again, including in a fairly recent film, 300, Rise of an Empire.

My recollection of this fictional account is a bit faint after all these years, but the histories show that the novel was clearly exaggerated with respect to some details of the battle of Thermopylae in which these men’s lives were sacrificed. In my memory the novelist also changed the date of the battle of Marathon to make the whole story more dramatic, ending the novel as the runner arrives at Athens after Marathon, with the news of victory. In Herodotus’ account the battle of Marathon takes place a few years earlier than Thermopylae, not after it.

Herodotus’ The Histories presents a relentlessly detailed account of the classical and pre-classical history of the eastern Mediterranean including some of the myths and legends of Greece, Persia and Egypt, and is divided into 9 books, each looking at a different period of time or geographical location.

The first book examines the way the conflict between Persia and Greece began. There are echoes of the story of Troy in the abductions of women that take place, and the story of the wealthy Croesus seems to be a place where myth meets reality. He is a man of ambition and decides to extend his empire to the east, which brings him into contact with the growing Persian empire under Cyrus. Cyrus responds by moving into Croesus’ Lydia (now partly Turkey) and conquering not only Croesus, but the Ionian Greeks settled along the coast.

Book 2 is a history of Egypt. It is extensively detailed and some of Herodotus’ comments on the culture, history and geography of Egypt are especially interesting. For example Herodotus hypothesises about the source of the Nile, the size and shape of the world and the whole continent of Africa.  He raises the question of whether it is possible to sail round Africa, and whether anybody had, recounting a story of men who found the sun rising on the wrong side of their boat as they journeyed on. Herodotus is sceptical about this, but it rings true to a modern reader.

Books 3 and 4 describe the growth of the Persian empire, including the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses, and excursions to the north into Scythia by Darius. Here myth and legend again become inextricably linked as factual knowledge about these northern areas was quite scarce. In books 5 and 6 Herodotus describes Darius’ excursion into Europe. This is in the end a failure. The Persians are expelled, and Darius dies before he can organise another expedition, leaving Xerxes to take over the reigns in books 7 to 9, which detail the events of his campaign.

The Landmark Herodotus is a clear presentation of this history. There is a series of detailed maps and footnotes so that with patience the reader can follow the progress of the armies, and discover the different parts of the world subject to Greek and Persian influence. Following Xerxes progress around the coast of the Aegean, or looking at the different parts of Asia subject to Persian rule was fascinating. I have to say that I’m a sucker for these kind of maps which have no real practical purpose or use – as one of my sons says, they are just cramming my brain with useless information!

There are several appendices to The Landmark Herodotus, and these fill in the gaps in Herodotus’ account, for example describing Spartan life and culture in detail, looking briefly at key dialect issues or considering the accuracy of Herodotus’ portrayal of Egypt. I mostly skimmed through these. There are also illustrations in black and white showing ancient implements or weapons, or presenting diagrams and illustrations of, for example, fortifications. These are all interesting.

For the more casual reader each section is accompanied in the margin by a clear and brief summary of its contents , and many students would benefit from, and even rely on this, as it allows the reader to quickly skim sections and retrieve significant information. The histories are also divided into numbered sections which allow the reader to identify footnotes with ease.

The Landmark Herodotus was a gift, and not a book I would have chosen myself, being rather academic and of quite a daunting length. It’s not without fault – some footnotes are missing and it was quite fun to notice these – what a geek I am!

Nevertheless it’s a great resource for any student of the classics, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend everyone to read The Histories word by word as I did, there are certainly many interesting comments and pieces of information. As a landmark document showing the first recorded attempts to offer both a factual history, and a scientific and sceptical account of the Greek world, Herodotus is certainly worth a look!!

In his book Persian Fire Tom Holland offers his account of the conflict between Greece and Persia which he sees as epitomising the great divide between Asia and Europe embodied in today’s clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations. This is a much more accessible version of events, but not to everyone’s taste.

 

Pep Guardiola – The Evolution – Marti Perarnau

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Pep Guardiola – The Evolution focuses on the three years Guardiola spent at Bayern Munich, and includes the summer of 2016 in which he completed his move to Manchester City.  It is the sequel to Perarnau’s first book, Pep Confidential, which was about Pep’s time in charge of Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola – The Evolution has a distinct approach to Guardiola’s coaching career.  Each part ends with a section looking at one particular Pep game from a tactical point of view, or considering Pep’s response to a specific game, setback or triumph.  So the second chapter ends with an analysis of Munich’s successful 7-1 demolition of Roma on 21st October 2014.  Perarnau makes some interesting points in these sections of the book, looking closely at Pep’s methods, and at specific tactical variations.

In a book 370 pages long, these separate sections take up 67 pages.  They look at a cup game against Dortmund, managed by Klopp, a game against Koln, and analyse the developing role of Thomas Mueller during Pep’s time at Munich.  Amongst other topics, Perarnau also considers Pep’s use of the pyramid, and dedicates one of these sections to a France Spain basketball match.  They are the most interesting parts of the book.

In the contents list the remaining sections are neatly subdivided into chapter headings and subheadings : Why City?, How Germany Changed Pep, What Makes Him the Best, Pep’s Influence on German Football.  When I tell you that the subheadings of just one chapter include phrases like Ideological Eclecticism, Doubt and Decision Making, and Barriers to Innovation you will get some sense of what the rest of the book is like.  European cultures have the benefit of using Romance languages in common parlance, so that what in English is the excessive use of latinate or over educated vocabulary is for them more normal, but it’s clear that Perarnau goes a step beyond, using Greek terminology – Ideological Eclecticism – as well as the more common Latin roots – innovation.  This language epitomises the style of the book which is highly intellectual and because of this extremely un-British.

It’s a moot point for me whether football merits such an intellectual approach.  It is after all a game of passion, and essentially a game of improvisation, whilst tactical play can lead to boring approaches such as parking the bus.  (Note the English approach to tactical vocabulary by the way – rather more down to earth than Perarnau’s approach.  Hoofing it upfield is another phrase we use, though some English coaches have intellectualised this, calling it the long ball game.)

If you are going to write about football in intellectual terms though, I do think you need to show the barest of intellectual rigour when doing so, and in my view Perarnau did not achieve this. For example, the chapter subheadings aren’t really accurate descriptions of what is included; instead they are more often distinct starting points for what turn out to be quite rambling though very enthusiastic musings about Pep and football.  So one particular line of argument goes like this:

Preparation and a Passion for Detail – subheading – an interesting section early on in  the book which details Pep’s training methods approaching a match against Dortmund. It is about five pages long, and immediately followed by the section entitled Ideological Eclecticism, which begins Having explained how important it has been to Guardiola to incorporate new concepts into his football bible… But this sentence was a complete non-sequitur – there was nothing explicit about new concepts in that previous section.  There were many other logical inconsistencies like this, which obscured the thread of the argument, and made it difficult for me to get an overall sense of what Perarnau was saying about Guardiola.  It was very frustrating.

Examples of Perarnau’s over intellectualisation and adoration of Pep abound.  I’m tempted to say his approach is hagiographic, but I’m trying to eliminate the Greek roots from my own writing – anything else would be sheer hypocrisy.  But during the course of Pep Guardiola – the Evolution, Pep’s approach to football is regularly compared to that of a painter, sculptor or musician.  These are fairly cliched ideas.  His achievements are described in glowing terms throughout: Guardiola’s great achievement, his genius for tactical planning, his charisma.  I happen to think he’s a brilliant manager, but in this book these terms were overused.

At other times Perarnau disappears into pure verbiage and even more over intellectualisation, for example when he takes time out to define the exact meaning of a game plan –what does it consist of, what are its constituent parts.  Then there is the list of all the different possible permutations of 11 players on a football field, starting with 4-3-3. It takes up two full pages.

I found this book in The Works, a remaindered bookshop in Torquay – not a renowned centre for Manchester City or Bayern Munich fans.  There must be a lot of unsold copies.  I can see why.  Pep has not read this book, or its predecessor. I think he would be surprised if he did.  Pep is a perfectionist, and this is far from perfect!  The impression I got was that it was rushed to print.

The Works – 275 Shops Nationwide

 

 

The Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes

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The Seven Daughters of Eve was written by Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University.  You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard about some of the projects he’s been involved in, such as the discovery that a Stone Age body found recently in a melting glacier in the Alps has living relatives in Bournemouth, and that a 1000 year old skull in Cheddar Caves Somerset has direct descendants still living in the area – teaching at the local comprehensive school in fact.  Sykes worked on both these projects, and gives full accounts of them in this book.

Sykes moved into the field of human genetics at quite an early point of the development of the subject, when genetic identification techniques were much less advanced than now.  On a year’s sabbatical he was flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne to start the second of two six month placements, and landed on the Cook Islands for a short holiday.

When he broke a bone, his vacation was extended, and this gave him thinking time.  The upshot was that Sykes took blood samples back to Oxford., and carried out genetic testing which proved that the South Sea Islanders had arrived on the Pacific Islands from Asia.  This was surprising as it meant they had sailed against the prevailing winds, and it also confounded the theories of Thor Heyerdahl, who had argued they had come from South America, and reconstructed their hypothetical voyage on the famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.

In this way genetic testing had solved one of the most controversial and problematic questions about human origins and migrations.  Sykes was able to go on and fill in the details of the Polynesian migrations by sampling genetic material from across the Pacific, showing how and at what time different voyages, ending up with the last, to New Zealand, had taken place.  In The Seven Daughters of Eve he sets out to do the same for Europe.

Sykes writes in a very clear and simple style that is easily accessible to non scientists.  He explains complex issues well, limiting the use of mathematics and making do with quite simple diagrams. In this way he is able to tell the personal story of his scientific life, at the same time as describing the growth of genetics as a science and the story of human population diversity.

In the process Sykes explains some of the basic facts about DNA, including the nature of mitochondrial DNA.  He explains why maternal DNA is the most effective for tracing human migrations: mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line, mutations occurring rarely, but on a fairly regular pattern, allowing researchers to estimate the times that population movements took place.  In contrast, nucleic DNA changes at every generation as the sperm and the egg bring together DNA from two different people.

Sykes has the knack of bringing his story to life with real examples.  As well as the two mentioned in paragraph one, both of which hit the news headlines, he also spends time discussing the role of DNA in trying to discover whether any children survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas in 1918, a story that involved genetic profiling of Prince Phillip, a distant relative.  The human dimension is enhanced by his habit of writing the story as if he is thinking through his ideas, so that you are allowed to share his sense of discovery.

This was a fascinating book that combines human interest stories with scientific sleuthing, and has some of the qualities of a good detective novel in places.  The main theme of the book – The Seven Daughter of Eve – is taken up more fully in the last seven chapters, each of which imagines life for one of the seven women at a different time in human evolution.  This was my least favourite part of the book. It’s clear that Sykes is speculating here, and it’s hard not to see this section as a total fiction.  It lacks the hard evidence of early chapters, but at the same time lacks the grit and guts that a real writer of fiction might have brought to the stories.  There was some general interest here, especially with respect to the changing environment during the prehistoric period, and the likely sites of early human activity in Europe, but that could have been explained more concisely.

If you have any interest in recent findings about the history and the migration patterns of mankind, you will probably have come into contact with some of the theories and ideas based on Sykes’ work, and with the work of others in this field.  Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel is possibly the best known, and certainly a fascinating account of the human story.  Alice Robert’s TV programme for the BBC offers a more up to date view and one that is more easily accessible:

The Incredible Human Journey

She also has written a book on this topic, published 10 years after Sykes’ book, and so more up to date.  I might read this too, or find something else on this topic, which I find really interesting, and would recommend.

Evolution, The Human Story

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

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The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a self proclaimed New History of the World which looks at the story of humanity from a non-eurocentric point of view.  Frankopan’s book is about Asia and the Middle East, which he sees as the birthplace and the cradle of civilisation because of their impact on human development and their significance to the human story.

The section about the Roman Empire perhaps sums up Frankopan’s approach most clearly.  Whilst many authors have focused on the rise and fall of Rome, examining the usual sources to give accounts of Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, or to look at the cultural links between Greece and Rome, or at the decline of Rome as a consequence of the arrival of nameless savages from the East, Frankopan’s focus is completely different.  His Rome is always looking East to the traders and riches arriving along the Silk Road: Europe is an accident of Rome’s birth, but its wealth came from Egypt and further afield: the key battles were not the ones against the Gauls, but those against the Persians and the Scythians.  In the end the capital was switched to Constantinople to reflect the importance of the east to Rome.  This was a fresh approach to an old story, and very welcome.

Frankopan sees everything as an adjunct to, or consequence of, events in the East, including ironically the development of Europe and the West since the Reformation.  Claiming that for many Europeans the East is an unknown and mysterious place, he points out that the Middle East and India were the birthplaces of the world’s major religions, and that the East was for long periods the focus of social, political and intellectual development, whilst the West, and especially Europe, was impoverished, backward and isolated from the cultural heart of life.

This is not really a new argument.  It is a common view that Islam protected the cultural legacy of the Classical age during the European Dark Ages, and promoted further discoveries in science, maths and medicine.  But most historians have seen the triumph of the West as the culmination of human history, whilst Frankopan sees it merely as a brief episode, before Europe once again slips into ignominy and relative poverty.

Frankopan shares his extensive knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia, considering an exhaustive range of events and societies, beginning with the development and dissemination of the religious faiths of Buddhism and Christianity, and exploring the spread of trade, ideas, religions and empires across the whole of Asia, including the rise of Islam.  He looks at the links with Russia, and Russia’s growth, and at the impact of the Mongol hordes; he writes about the crusades and the later birth of European seaborne trade, a search for eastern riches that lead to the growth of the West.  He considers the British Empire specifically with respect to the Great Game: the wrangling between Britain Russia and Turkey over Russia’s route to the Black Sea and the Gulf.  He gives an extensive account of the division of the Middle East by the British and French – the Sykes Picot line – and the consequences of this arbitrary division for the modern world.  There are sections on World war 2 and on the growth of Israel.  Finally he takes the argument into the 21st century, with a concluding analysis of the current political situation in the Middle East that is interesting and well informed.

The Silk Roads considers the natural advantages of the East in geopolitical terms: the centrality of the Middle East to various trade routes which contributed to its wealth and consequently its power.  Frankopan comments on the new riches to be found there, and describes the current struggle to wrench these resources away from the rapacious hands of western colonisers.  For him the future of the world is to be found in this wealth which he sees as falling more securely into local hands to the exclusion and long term impoverishment of the West.