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. 

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit