Gollum hasn't been taking enough vitamins. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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From Aragorn's blood pressure to Gollum's vitamin D levels: the science of The Lord of the Rings

Fact versus fantasy.

Science and fantasy. One is based on facts learned through investigative method, and the other is, well, not real. But there’s something about JRR Tolkien’s legendarium, The Lord of the Rings, which has infatuated and besotted numerous scientists. These scientists, ladies and gentleman, could be classified, scientifically, as supernerds.

So in good Maiar, a myriad of scientists have pledged their allegiance to the Fellowship of the Ring through in-depth scientific study. Most of these studies are tongue-in-cheek, but they also have real scientific gravitas. For example, a recent paper, published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, investigates whether Tolkien’s Middle Earth has higher oxygen content in order for the Men of Rohan and Gondor to perform “seemingly unachievable feats of heroism and athleticism”.

Using the gas exchange equation, test specimen Aragorn, and his “tireless defence on Helm’s Deep” against an onslaught of orcs, Richard Walker and Alice Cooper-Dunn, of the University of Leicester, estimated a 10 per cent increase in atmospheric O2 concentration in Middle Earth, compared to Earth.

“Although Aragorn gives his age to be 87, he displays the physical prowess of a man assumed to be in their mid-30s due to him being from a magical race of men, the Dúnedain, gifted with long life,” they write. “Therefore his age will be approximated to be 35 for the purposes of calculating his arterial partial pressure of oxygen.”

Walker and Cooper-Dunn write that Aragorn’s arterial partial pressure of oxygen (the amount of oxygen in the blood) is 54 per cent higher than the highest of the normal human range (100 mmHg), indicating his superior endurance. “Therefore a higher atmospheric oxygen content is shown to confer considerable physical advantage due to the higher oxygen levels in the blood, which are available to the tissues,” they conclude.

Such a study is just a drop in the ocean; other Lord of the Rings questions answered by scientists include:

  • Is Tolkien’s themes of death, longevity and aging in Lord of the Rings a fuel for his own catharsis? Yes.
  • Is Sméagol (Gollum), a single, (circa) 580-year-old, hobbit-like male of no fixed abode severely mentally ill? Most likely. He exhibits anti-social behaviour, increasing aggression and an over 500-year-old obsession with his “precious”, which is most likely the cause of a schizoid personality disorder, bipolar disorder or multiple-personality disorder.
  • Bilbo Baggins steals the One Ring from Gollum in his dark cave; Baggins defends himself with his Elven dagger and Gollum forbears. Does Gollum need vitamin D and is therefore weak without it? Possibly.
  • Could Frodo Baggins have really survived a cave-troll spear (film)/goblin-chieftain (book) attack in the mines of Moria without fracturing his sternum? Even if he was wearing the impenetrable Mithril shirt of chain mail and therefore still able to flee further from a Balrog shortly after? Yes.
  • Can mental maps of cities in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit be formed from the amount of times cities located together are mentioned together? Yes.

Professor Dan Lunt of the University of Bristol, who by day is a climate scientist, but by night “Radagast the Brown”, created a grandiose climate model simulation of Middle Earth by scanning its map into a supercomputer at the university’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. The model simulation was put into context "by also presenting simulations of the climate of the ‘Modern Earth’ of humans, and of the ‘Dinosaur Earth’, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth 65m years ago,” Lunt writes in his paper.

The supercomputer crunched the weather patterns of Rohan, Mirkwood, and the rest of Tolkien’s universe for about six days, or roughly 70 years in Lord of the Rings years. According to the model, the climate of the Shire, the pastoral dwelling place of the hobbits, is most similar to Lincolnshire or Leicestershire, and Mordor, a barren wasteland, is apparently similar to Los Angeles or west Texas – but without “the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron”. Sounds close enough.

The Shire is also comparable to Dunedin in New Zealand, he found. Lunt told the Guardian that he believes the director of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson made a massive mistake in choosing to film in Matamata (located in New Zealand's north island). "They should've filmed in the south island," says Lunt. 

In the paper, Lunt also suggests:

  • Ships sailing for Undying Lands in the west set off from the Grey Havens due to the prevailing winds in that region.
  • A lot of Middle Earth would have been covered in dense forest if the landscape had not been altered by dragons, orcs, wizards, etc.
  • Mordor had an inhospitable climate, even without Sauron – hot and dry with little vegetation.

"The serious point to the study was that it showed that climate models are not just statistical models tuned to observations, but are based on fundamental physics and thus can be applied to any planet, real or imagined," Lunt tells me.

Tolkienmania continues in the scientific community: In Science's Love Affair with the Lord of the RingsJulie Beck, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, writes about a plethora of scientists who have named their scientific discoveries or tools after Lord of the Rings characters, regions, artefacts and even Tolkien himself

I ask Lunt why scientists love and study Lord of the Rings:

Underlying The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a whole mythology, created by Tolkien, which is only hinted at in the books, but which gives depth and power to the narrative. Plus the stories themselves are captivating, and climax with action and excitement on a grand scale which is beautifully described. I expect that many others feel similar [to Lord of the Rings], not just scientists,” he adds.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis