Umberto Eco: A Tribute

Umberto Eco is one of the authors whom I really admire although it has been several years since I read his books. Popular culture knows him as the one whose Foucault’s Pendulum foreshadowed medieval conspiracy theory fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He is also known as the author of The Name of the Rose which is a detective story set in medieval times and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery.

He was an expert in the medieval history of Europe and a Professor of the mysteriously named field of Semiotics. No one else has done more to popularize this field and its use in interpreting historical findings. His knowledge of these two areas were ingrained in his thinking as a philosopher and his writing.

Semiotics refers to the study of signs, their interpretation and use in communication, and their link to language. Since these are a lot of heavy words, let me give you an example that we can all relate to. I had a twitter account under a different name. When I created this blog, I wanted a matching twitter account (no, I don’t really use it!) but “@nilambar” wasn’t available. I was under the invisible time pressure we all feel when creating a username on online signup forms. So in my panic I was searching the screen and my room for some clue.

Here is a screenshot of the top right section on twitter:


This + “nilambar” = “quillambar“! I know the end result is extremely cheesy but let me explain how my brain worked: Green post button with feather logo -> a feather is used to make a quill which is used for writing -> rhymes with nil -> bingo!

After observing the icon, this whole cognitive process took less than a second. This is a simple example that shows how a sign (feather) combined with context (writing), produced an idea (quill) that produced a word (something related to writing + the rhyming?). There are probably interesting neuro-biological aspects to this as well but we will stick to the subject here. Semiotics is basically a formal study of such processes from the perspective of history, language and communication. Eco wrote definitive textbooks in his main field of Semiotics.

He also wrote more accessible essays where he deployed these skills. After a visit to the US, he wrote essays published as Travels in Hyper-reality that explore the reasons for America’s fixation with living life larger or in recreating reality (replicas of the Oval Office or installations in Disneyland) based on his observations.

He was an expert on the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe. He could connect historic development right from the crusades and the inquisition to modern times. But I don’t think Eco wrote a popular or academic book that purely covered history unlike for example, William Dalrymple’s research on Afghanistan or the Mughal times in India. Instead he liked to combine a lot of historical fact with handcrafted fiction and his most well-known novels do exactly that.

As a widely read person, he felt every book referred to many others consciously or not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks about the massive library of Eco in his book, The Black Swan, and calls it the “anti-library” of which I wrote here. Taleb also calls him encyclopedic.

He wrote a set of essays, On Literature, that demonstrates his wide range of reading. One of themes was that Literature reinvents itself with the sensibilities of every passing age. The other theme was on the nature of writing. The last essay here, “How I write” has some immortal lines on the last page:

“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list… One writes only for a reader… Whoever says he writes for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.

Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.”

He combines knowledge of semiotics, history and literature into his fiction as demonstrated in The Name of the Rose:

  • The name of the book is not explained in the book and has no connection to the story. Later in a postscript he said that he chose this, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”
  • The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a play on William of Occam (known for the Occam’s Razor principle) and Sherlock Holmes
  • Jorge Luis Borges, who was the inspiration for many of the “magic realism” writers in South America like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a favourite of Eco. The main antagonist in this book is inspired by him. Borges wrote about a labyrinthine Library of Babel, in a short story. Eco sets a lot of the action in his book in a similarly modeled library.
  • The inquisition and fixations of the dark ages play a big role in this book. There is a theme of searching for heresies and punishing new ideas; destruction of books and scrolls that may contain knowledge that contradicts theology.

He also wrote commentary about the now. A set of essays titled Inventing the Enemy starts out with an idea that if one doesn’t have an enemy then one must invent it. He shows that even to have an identity (as a person or a group) that has some self-worth means we must invent an “other”; something foreign and repulsive – an enemy. It shows when you look around in today’s connected world. You can have enemies who you never see or speak to, provoke, draw reactions and deliver counter-reactions, and thereby establish and celebrate your identity as opposed to the “other”.

Eco left us earlier this year and will be sorely missed but his entire body of work says that what he wrote will endure and reinvent itself. May he rest in peace.

Asimov’s Psychohistory and Physics

Celebrated Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov came up with a very intriguing premise for his classic Foundation Series. The character who sets off the events of the series, Hari Seldon, is a Professor of Mathematics who develops a statistical method – the creatively named psychohistory – to predict the future course of “humanity” which is now spread across billions of planets in a Galaxy and is of the order of one quintillion. Using his methods, he predicts that the Galactic Empire will fail (inspired by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He predicted that the dark age following this event would last thirty thousand years. Presumably using his model’s predictive powers, he creates a plan of interventions (the “Seldon Plan”) that would limit this to a thousand years instead and puts it in action. The method is explained to be a marriage of statistics and sociology assuming a huge population and some sociological precepts like Mass Action.

What has this got to do with Physics? I recently read a few interesting popular science books – In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin, Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory and Cycles of Time by Roger Penrose. The first was written in very simple language and left me with a decent grasp of the ideas of Quantum Theory without delving into the Math. The relevant point to this topic from this book was the fact that the mathematics told us weird things like an electron moving forward in time was equivalent to a positron moving backward in time! What meaning then does time have? The second was a surprisingly lucid book as well and provided a good understanding of Relativity theory. The third I suspect is a brilliant book but I barely understood it. The concept was that Entropy increases with time and ultimately the Universe is filled with mass-less red-shifted photons where distance loses all meaning and this state can become the starting point of a new Big Bang (which is supposed to be a very low entropy state). Gravity plays a huge part in these sequence of events (like smashing black-holes together for example). The mathematics and the geometry were easily beyond me. But what I learned using these readings is that apparently Entropy is the only physical concept that gives meaning to the concept of time.

Further to this I came across an interesting article – A New Physics Theory of Life – from about a year ago on research by Jeremy England from MIT. I then read the original paper that triggered the media hype – Statistical Physics of Self-replication – which basically tries to explain that a biological process like self-replication is inevitable if we follow through with the ideas of Entropy and Thermodynamics in a statistical sense. It seems to say that, in its inexorable march towards higher and higher entropy, the Universe inevitably gives rise to life because life is a system that can work very close to perfect thermodynamic efficiency and give rise to disorder much more effectively! The questions this research raises are several. Intelligent life is capable of increasing entropy much faster than the lazy mammals! Is that why we evolved? Where then do we go from here? Can we predict the broad contours of our future using the statistics of entropy and thermodynamics? Especially with billions on humans on our planet and may be several other intelligent species across other planets in our galaxy? Is Interstellar travel then fated to happen! Wars between planets, the power to harness the energy of several stars, all ensuring that the march towards a high entropy state continues and is probably even sped up!

Now try telling me this doesn’t sound a bit like Asimov’s psychohistory!


Memory and Writing: Recording Literature

Who has not heard of their own culture’s sagas and epics? In India we are brought up on stories from a body of literature called the Itihasa, a corpus that includes the well-known Mahabharata and the Ramayana and several Puranas which were all probably composed by bards. These may have originated as the bards’ paeans to their respective kings and embellished further by generations of state-funded poets have now taken a form that is difficult to interpret in a historic sense. The language of the itihasa is believed to be the vernacular of several regions and times (Prakrit(s)) until they were standardized in Classical Sanskrit at different points after 500 BC. The Vedas on the other hand were regarded as sacrosanct and were composed by different schools in what is now referred to as Vedic Sanskrit, considered much more fluid and adaptable than the strict Classical Sanskrit of the grammarian Panini. Vedic Sanskrit itself had a significant period of evolution from the early hymns of the Rig Veda to the Upanishads.

Using a crude analogy, while the Itihasa can be considered today’s equivalent of dinner-table stories usually narrated to entertain a king or an audience; the Vedic corpus of literature was considered the (meta)-physics of the age starting with praises to various Gods and trying to describe physical reality and the nature of the soul. The needs for preservation were therefore different. The Itihasa could be violated in form and substance which is the reason they are nearly useless in historical studies. There are hundreds of versions of every story each localized to the unique needs of the region where the version originated. The Vedas needed to be preserved as is but due to the nature of its content it is also not a powerful tool to understand the people and culture of the age very well. Writing is the best option to preserve a text but it took hold much later in India as the materials (palm leaves?) were not durable and oral tradition dominated almost until printing presses were introduced. Prior to the advent of the Brahmi script in India, both traditions had to be recorded orally.  What one does not realize or takes for granted is the impact of memory on this process.

Imagine I recite a verse several pages in length and it is your responsibility to ensure you can repeat it without error 5 years later! Now imagine that I will not ask you but ask my grandchild to ask your grandchild to recite the same 50 years later! This led to specialized systems simply to preserve a text. The widely criticized rote system of learning in India today can possibly be traced back to the mnemonic devices needed to preserve the ancient texts. A scholar would memorize the text in several different ways and recite them along with his colleagues several times a month. Backward if needed! Maintaining the integrity of several thousand verses across a millennium until it could be written down takes a lot of doing. Today when we listen to Vedic chants we focus on the rhythm and its capacity to reach the divine. We forget why the chanting came into existence. Chanting was one of the many mnemonic devices needed to preserve literature in the absence of writing when the integrity of the text was the ultimate objective. To ensure the devotion of scholars to learn and preserve the texts there are several verses that only focus on the benefits of the chanting and the divine nature of the rhythm and sound. This stupendous achievement of preserving a text was recognized by UNESCO as valued heritage. This is because there are very few known ancient traditions from cultures dating from times prior to when they assimilated writing into their literature. Copious amounts of ancient literature are therefore lost to us simply because memory wasn’t enough and writing wasn’t available!

The sad part is that while the objective of preserving the Vedas in India was achieved, the numbers of those who can could understand and explain the meaning of the verses has dwindled. In fact, even starting in the late 1st millenium BC, Buddhism and Jainism flourished because vedic chants mingled with ritual were incomprehensible to those who were supposed to benefit from it and even for many who conducted it! These newer traditions in turn also couldn’t hold their own partly because writing was still not prevalent. Today much of what is known about Buddhism and its literature comes from sources in Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan where the oral traditions persisted till writing took hold. We learn of the Buddhist Councils held in irregular intervals after Buddha’s passing whose sole purpose was to discuss what was canonical and what was not in the absence of writing. Experts with strong memories were worth their weight in gold! However, a thousand schisms duly ensued and after a not so brief flowering, Buddhism was forgotten from memory for a thousand years in India!

Students of the future who study the modern era will have other problems though. The problems have moved on from preservation to interpretation. There are now several written versions of any event driven by the biases and the memories of the individual writer! Memory even when retrieved and written down within a few hours is a fickle thing.