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. 

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.