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. 

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution