Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.

Palearctic travelers

The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, 2007.

 This very rich and fascinating book details the development of our understanding of the history of the Indo European family of languages, from the latest common set of dialects spoken by people living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. David Anthony covers the time from the earliest diffusion of agriculture and domesticated animals out of Mesopotamia into southeastern Europe and the subsequent gradual spread out into the steppes. His key thesis is that the domestication of the wild horses of the steppes and their subsequent use as mounts, followed by the introduction of the wagon and the war chariot gave steppe tribes a mobility that enabled them to move long distances, eventually into central Europe and the Indian subcontinent, creating a bridge across cultural regions that by the late bronze age extended as far as China. Thus their language became the dominant family of languages over a vast geographic area.

 To begin with, Anthony, an archaeologist, provides an account of the linguistic evidence for a common ancestral language. The history was derived from careful analysis of phonetic and morphological changes among closely and distantly related languages. This work has been going on since the 18th century, when Europeans first began to suspect that their languages and those of India were akin to one another. This process is very much like reconstructing a biological lineage from genetic and morphological data on living or fossil specimens. It is always only the best hypothesis to explain the data at hand, but lots of work gradually leads to trustworthy results. Interestingly, linguists and evolutionary biologists employ many of the same computer programs. Anthony argues that with the predictive capacity of these explanations and the help of inscriptions dating to some of the earliest writing, we can be reasonably certain that we know some 1500 root words of Proto Indo European as well as many more terms derived from them.

 In a long series of chapters, he goes through the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the culture and characteristics of the speakers of Proto Indo European as well as how they came to be capable of leaving their steppe home and spreading out so far. Technological change is a key factor: the period covered extends from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Tools, weapons, household goods and prestige items were all important. So was the domestication of the horse and the new kinds of both herding and livestock raiding that riding horses made possible. Climate change was another key factor: cold, dry periods favored herding over farming and led to wars that destroyed thriving agricultural settlements on the edges of the steppes. Cultural change was evident all along as settlement patterns, burial styles and material goods changed, indicating, according to Anthony, the rise of more male centered and hierarchical societies on the steppes – in other words the rise of the chieftain and possibly the priest, as had also happened in the city states of Mesopotamia. At some point the wheel spread into the steppe from the south.

 In the steppe, horseback riding and the wagon facilitated an mobile style of herding that also could be accompanied by cattle raiding, looting and trading, which in turn led some to accumulate greater wealth in herds and goods, including copper and bronze weapons and ornaments. Harsher climates also contributed to this increase in social inequality. Anthony argues from linguistic evidence that the speakers of Proto Indo European developed two key social systems that enabled them to dominate the cultures that they encountered in their expansion out of the steppe: patron-client and guest-host. The former stabilized and solidified the pattern of social inequality; the latter made possible firm alliances among groups from both similar and different cultures on the basis of reciprocal obligation (the Indo European root for “guest” and “host” is the same). These, plus the ability of mobile herders to make long distance migrations and easily establish themselves wherever pasture could be found, profoundly shaped the future history of Eurasia. Sometimes raiding and warfare must have been involved in the spread of these peoples, but not the sorts of mobile armies (think of the Mongol hordes) seen in the iron ages and Medieval times; those were a much later development. The primary way the Indo European culture spread, according to Anthony, was incremental. A few powerful chiefs established themselves in new territory, either as patrons or as guest/hosts, and their superior wealth, culture and technology gradually won over the locals. Horseback riding and chariots (possibly invented in the steppe) were rapidly adopted in Europe, the Middle East and China, while the Indo European language evolved into multiple major branches, eventually extending from the British Isles to India.

 Since the publication of this book, genetic studies of ancient Europeans have been published that are consistent with the overall picture given here. About the time suggested by Anthony for the initial spread of Indo European dialects into Eastern Europe, there was an significant spread of DNA, especially that of males, from the steppes north of the Black Sea into Europe. News reports from Science in 2015 and 2017 describes these studies as does a recent news article in Scientific American. The evidence, however, raises many questions. For instance, there are also significant indications that European genes spread into the steppes. This could be explained if long distance trading or raiding, involving wives or children brought back by returning parties were significant, as well as children fathered by the migrants/visitors in Europe. It doesn’t rule out long distance migration and colonization by steppe peoples as well, but it suggests that the picture was complicated. Genes, culture and language spread together, with or without large-scale migration, in Anthony’s scenario.

What makes Anthony’s account particularly cogent, and better than any of the news stories, is his attention to detail, particularly in laying out the linguistic and archeological evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but we can be grateful for his scholarship and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries.