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A chair of astrology at Harvard?

Is the strange interstellar object that has been ,named 'Oumuamua' perhaps an alien artifact? Apparently this idea is being considered by Professor Loeb, chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University. In this morning's Today programme one of the presenters, Nick Robinson, introduced Loeb as chair of the department of astrology. I don't know if this is an indication of how seriously we are supposed to take the idea.

'Informer' on BBC1: 'Dirty Old Town'

I found the rendition of 'Dirty Old Town' on BBC1's 'Informer' particularly attractive but I couldn't see anything in the credits to show where they got it. I spent much of a day learning how to extract and edit the sound track from the programme (an interesting and probably useful exercise) but eventually I located what seems to be the source on Youtube, sung by Esther Ofarim. If you've looked for it yourself you can find it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMT6WaSEy5U

There are other versions of the song by the same singer, Esther Ofarim, on Youtube but I preferred this one.

Book review: The Dead, by James Joyce

,The Dead is the final story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, published in 1914. At almost 1600 words it is long enough to be called a novella, but that is not the only reason I'm reviewing it on its own; its richness, depth, and complexity are characteristic of a novel rather than a short story and that is how I think it should be judged.

The central characters are Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, who attend a Christmas party given annually by Gabriel's aunts, Julia and Kate, and their neice Mary Jane, who lives with them. Gabriel arrives late at the party and we see events largely through his eyes, as he interacts, sometimes awkwardly, with other people. A friend who is an ardent Irish nationalist twits him about what she thinks is his sympathy for British influence on Ireland; he is stung and reacts badly to this.

When the party breaks up Gabriel and his wife go to a nearby hotel for the night because it is snowing. Gabriel is anticipating a romantic and passionate evening, but matters take a strange turn. Gretta has been in a abstracted mood since overhearing a song that was sung at the party, and in answer to Gabriel's questioning she tells him it used to be sung by Michael Furey, a young man she had been in love with in her youth in the country. He had been in poor health and had come to see her in the rain one night when she was about to leave for Dublin. He died at seventeen and she believed it was his coming to see her in the rain that night that caused his death.

After telling Gabriel this, Gretta cries and then falls asleep. Gabriel lies awake,reflecting on what he has experienced during the evening. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


I don't remember when I first read The Dead but it's a piece of writing, especially its final paragraph, that I've never been able to get out of my mind, and I've reread it periodically since then. Wikipedia tells me I'm not alone. Critics have described it as 'just about the finest short story in the English language' (Dan Berry), 'one of the greatest short stories ever written' (T.S. Eliot), and 'that magnificent short novel of tenderness and passion…' (Daniel R. Schwarz). I concur. I don't think Joyce ever wrote anything better than this, not excluding Ulysses.

New light on religion in the USA

The picture many of us have of the USA as largely dominated by religion is based on the fact that most U.S. adults, unlike those in Western Europe, describe themselves as belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination. Others say they have no formal religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, but exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. All these conventional descriptive categories are potentially misleading and conceal a lot of discrepant beliefs, so that reading the results of surveys of religious attitudes often leaves one with the impression that much that is important is being left out.

In this new survey by the Pew Research Center the whole question is treated in a refreshingly different way that makes it enjoyable to read as well as providing many new insights. Although this is a serious research project it is presented in an accessible and indeed almost light-hearted style, as exemplified by tbe names of the categories it uses to describe the respondents to the survey. There are seven groups 'based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives'. The names, in descending order of belief and devoutness, are Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular.

These somewhat unconventional categories are more informative than those used by most researchers. For example, they go a good way towards classifying the large number of people who now reject formal religion (often called 'nones' in other surveys) while still identifying themselves as 'spiritual'. Here the term is not left undefined and vague, as it often is, but is characterised in terms of belief in specific 'New Age' ideas such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and the inherence of spiritual energy in trees, crystals, or other physical objects.

Nevertheless the conventional religious groupings are not ignored totally; a section at the end of the overview looks at how the different religious traditions (Jews, Catholics and so on) are distributed amont the seven categories used here.

The seven-fold scheme allows for finer distinctions than is often the case. For example, the Solidly Secular and the Religion Resisters are quite similar in their rejection of formal religion and contain similar numbers of agnostics (one-fifth). But 'Religion Resisters are more likely than the Solidly Secular to describe their religion as "nothing in particular" (45% vs. 23%), while the Solidly Secular are more likely than Religion Resisters to describe themselves as atheists (31% vs. 6%)'. Incidentally, the Solidly Secular group is the only one to be made up mostly of men (two-thirds).

Although the research is now complete you can still answer the questionnaire on line and discover your own category. I thought the questions were generally well chosen and clear; there were just a few places where I felt that any answer I gave might be misleading, but I didn't disagree with the category assignment I received.

All in all, I think this review is probably the most informative and interesting, as well as the most readable without sacrifice of scientific rigour, that I've encountered in this area. Its only limitation is that it is confined to religion in the USA. I wish a survey of similar quality could be carried out in Britain.



Book review: Limpieza de Sangre [in Spanish], by Arturo Perez-Reverte

See over 570 other reviews.

This is the second novel in the series describing the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune and hired assassin. We meet again with most of the characters who appeared in the first novel, El Capitán Alatriste, including his young page, Iñigo Balboa, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, who has an important role in this book. There is also a new character, Angélica de Alquézar, a young girl who fascinates Iñigo and is destined to have a major impact on his life in later years.

The plot is triggered by Quevedo's request to Alatriste for help in rescuing a girl who has been forced to enter a convent. Iñigo climbs into the convent and opens a door to Quevedo, Alatriste, and the girl's family members, but they are caught in a trap and Alatriste and Quevedo barely escape with their lives. Meanwhile Iñigo, who has disobeyed Alatriste's instruction to return home, is captured by Alatriste's old enemy, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who delivers him to the Inquisition.

Quite a lot of the book is taken up with Iñigo's experiences at the hands of the Inquisition. These are suitably horrific, although luckily he is not tortured on the rack because he has not quite attained the age of fourteen. (The Inqusition's rules did not allow torture of children below this age.)

The question of 'purity of blood' which gives the book its title, relates to people whose forebears had been 'conversos' (Jewish converts to Christianity) and who were suspected of backsliding. If convicted of this crime they were liable to execution by burning. The central event in the novel is an 'Auto de Fe', which is staged in Madrid with the King and Queen in attendance. Iñigo is one of the accused, alleged to have taken part in Jewish rituals, and is now awaiting sentence.

As usual, there is plenty of drama and sword-play, which on one occasion takes on a near-farcical character, when Alatriste breaks into the house of Luis de Alquézar, Angélica's powerful uncle and guardian, intending to terrify him into getting Iñigo released. But Angélica comes on the scene and attacks Alatriste savagely, scratching him and biting his arm.

There is a lot of local colour, with depictions of seventeenth-century Madrid low life. Sometimes the details of this may be obscure to readers who lack some background information. For example, Chapter III describes Iñigo's encounter with Angélica in the 'Acero' district of Madrid. This was a place where water containing iron was drunk for medicinal purposes ('acero' = 'steel'), but in the seventeenth century 'tomar el acero' ('to take the steel'—compare 'to take the waters') could also refer to the making of romantic assignations.

As in the previous book, Iñigo includes a good few verse quotations, mostly from Quevedo, in his story, along with political reflections on the sorry state of decadent Spain. Fortunately these don't hold up the action too much. The principal characters, Alatriste and Iñigo, continue to develop in a convincing manner.

The final episode in the book has Alatriste encountering Malatesta, with whom he had fought a few days previously, now lying in bed seriously injured. Alatriste wants to kill him but can't bring himself to do so while the man is defenceless. And he is forced to recognise that he and Malatesta have more in common than he likes to admit.