The Grand Contraption: The World as Myth, Number, and Chance

The Grand Contraption: The World as Myth, Number, and Chance

by David Park
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

"The Grand Contraption is the long-needed antidote to all those top-heavy histories of scientific thought that pass brusquely over the philosophies of the ancient world, eager to find the sure footing of modernity. Park tells us not only what science now knows, but how it got to know it: from an enthralling mix of myth, genius, logic, careful observation

See more details below

Overview

"The Grand Contraption is the long-needed antidote to all those top-heavy histories of scientific thought that pass brusquely over the philosophies of the ancient world, eager to find the sure footing of modernity. Park tells us not only what science now knows, but how it got to know it: from an enthralling mix of myth, genius, logic, careful observation, guesswork, invention, and a dash of inspired lunacy."—Philip Ball, author of Life's Matrix and consultant editor, Nature

"This book literally grabs you. The facts presented, the stories told, the author's reflections on the information he presents, are rendered beautifully-and masterfully. This is a labor of love, and the passion with which David Park has written the book is readily apparent and makes one want to keep on reading. And in doing so one is richly rewarded with keen insights, judicious appraisals, and with questions regarding courses of action and consequences that are not only thought provoking but also relevant."—Silvan S. Schweber, Brandeis University and Harvard University, author of QED and the Men Who Made It (Princeton)

"The Grand Contraption is an impressive feat of scholarship in the history of science, and it is even more impressive if one considers that it is written in clear and unpretentious English. Park offers, in plain language, an attractive way to think about cosmological ideas from a single perspective. No one will put this book down without having their level of consciousness raised by a few notches."—Christian Wildberg, Princeton University

Physics, astronomy, geology, and poetry all come together here in the grand quest to understand what out universe is and how it works. "Only a handful of authors have both the expertise and the courage to write a book of this sweep and depth. David Park has woven together a vast tapestry of humankind's vision of the cosmos, from ancient myths to our contemporary curiosity about intelligent life on other worlds."—Owen Gingerich. Professor of Astronomy & the History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"An exceptional and well-written introduction to the history of ideas, viewed from the perspective of their creators, who were adapting their thinking to new facts and conceptions as they went. We found the book engrossing and illuminating."—Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, coauthors of When They Severed Earth from Sky

Read More

Editorial Reviews

The Guardian - Paul Nettleton
Through flood myths and daimones (guardian angels), and the interplay of the elements—earth, air, fire and water—Park lovingly charts the history of how we imagines Earth and out place in its surroundings.
Physics Today - Helge Kragh
The Grand Contraption is a masterful presentation of the long timelines in the history of cosmology. It is a remarkable book on the development of the worldview from chaos to cosmos, and from the most ancient cultures to modern time.
MathDL - Herbert E. Kasube
[A] well-written history of human thought.
San Diego Union-Tribune - Scott LaFee
There is no practical way, of course, to pack all human understanding into a single volume, and Park doesn't try. Instead, he traces our evolving lines of reasoning, at least those emerging in the Western world, from early myth through the emergence of modern philosophy to the establishment of scientific method. . . . From person to person, period to period, Park threads together how myths were jettisoned for fact, how fact turned out to be more fabulous than myth.
Australian Physics - B.I. Henry
This book celebrates the formation of ideas based on myth, religion, aesthetics, logic and mathematics as they have evolved over the past four thousand years. . . . David Park is a fabulous guide through the history of these ideas and the minds of the great participants.
Isis - Patricia Fara
By abandoning any attempt to construct a neat plot, Park has avoided the temptation to trace out a progressive line leading inexorably toward modern science, and the book's meandering structure itself recalls the nondirectional pattern of scientific change. . . . Park's decision to be guided by personal choice and serendipity has led him to construct a meta-commentary on science's history.
Australian Physics - B. I. Henry
This book celebrates the formation of ideas based on myth, religion, aesthetics, logic and mathematics as they have evolved over the past four thousand years. . . . David Park is a fabulous guide through the history of these ideas and the minds of the great participants.
Booklist
Bring Homer and Einstein, Aristotle and Columbus into one timeless room (with translators), and their conversation would likely turn to the themes of this astonishingly capacious history of cosmology. . . . An exhilarating intellectual adventure.
Science News
In this comprehensive and fascinating book, Park reviews how theologians, philosophers, and mathematicians have attempted to explain subjects ranging from the creation of life to the nature of matter and the structure of the universe. . . . Park gives a comprehensive and readable overview of the 'grand contraption' that is the universe.
Physics Today
The Grand Contraption is a masterful presentation of the long timelines in the history of cosmology. It is a remarkable book on the development of the worldview from chaos to cosmos, and from the most ancient cultures to modern time.
— Helge Kragh
MathDL
[A] well-written history of human thought.
— Herbert E. Kasube
Australian Physics
This book celebrates the formation of ideas based on myth, religion, aesthetics, logic and mathematics as they have evolved over the past four thousand years. . . . David Park is a fabulous guide through the history of these ideas and the minds of the great participants.
— B. I. Henry
Isis
By abandoning any attempt to construct a neat plot, Park has avoided the temptation to trace out a progressive line leading inexorably toward modern science, and the book's meandering structure itself recalls the nondirectional pattern of scientific change. . . . Park's decision to be guided by personal choice and serendipity has led him to construct a meta-commentary on science's history.
— Patricia Fara
The Guardian
Through flood myths and daimones (guardian angels), and the interplay of the elements—earth, air, fire and water—Park lovingly charts the history of how we imagines Earth and out place in its surroundings.
— Paul Nettleton
San Diego Union-Tribune
There is no practical way, of course, to pack all human understanding into a single volume, and Park doesn't try. Instead, he traces our evolving lines of reasoning, at least those emerging in the Western world, from early myth through the emergence of modern philosophy to the establishment of scientific method. . . . From person to person, period to period, Park threads together how myths were jettisoned for fact, how fact turned out to be more fabulous than myth.
— Scott LaFee
From the Publisher
Finalist for the 2006 Book Award in Science, Independent Publisher Book Awards

"Through flood myths and daimones (guardian angels), and the interplay of the elements—earth, air, fire and water—Park lovingly charts the history of how we imagines Earth and out place in its surroundings."—Paul Nettleton, The Guardian

"Bring Homer and Einstein, Aristotle and Columbus into one timeless room (with translators), and their conversation would likely turn to the themes of this astonishingly capacious history of cosmology. . . . An exhilarating intellectual adventure."Booklist

"In this comprehensive and fascinating book, Park reviews how theologians, philosophers, and mathematicians have attempted to explain subjects ranging from the creation of life to the nature of matter and the structure of the universe. . . . Park gives a comprehensive and readable overview of the 'grand contraption' that is the universe."Science News

"The Grand Contraption is a masterful presentation of the long timelines in the history of cosmology. It is a remarkable book on the development of the worldview from chaos to cosmos, and from the most ancient cultures to modern time."—Helge Kragh, Physics Today

"[A] well-written history of human thought."—Herbert E. Kasube, MathDL

"There is no practical way, of course, to pack all human understanding into a single volume, and Park doesn't try. Instead, he traces our evolving lines of reasoning, at least those emerging in the Western world, from early myth through the emergence of modern philosophy to the establishment of scientific method. . . . From person to person, period to period, Park threads together how myths were jettisoned for fact, how fact turned out to be more fabulous than myth."—Scott LaFee, San Diego Union-Tribune

"This book celebrates the formation of ideas based on myth, religion, aesthetics, logic and mathematics as they have evolved over the past four thousand years. . . . David Park is a fabulous guide through the history of these ideas and the minds of the great participants."—B. I. Henry, Australian Physics

"By abandoning any attempt to construct a neat plot, Park has avoided the temptation to trace out a progressive line leading inexorably toward modern science, and the book's meandering structure itself recalls the nondirectional pattern of scientific change. . . . Park's decision to be guided by personal choice and serendipity has led him to construct a meta-commentary on science's history."—Patricia Fara, Isis

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691130538
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
04/03/2007
Pages:
348
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Grand Contraption

The World as Myth, Number, and Chance
By David Park

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.




Chapter One

VOICES FROM THE SANDS

When my hair was half done I remembered I love you I forgot my hair I ran to find you Now let me finish I'll only be a minute. - Egyptian, before 1200 BCE

IN ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA or in the valley of the Nile, you could look around at a landscape interrupted only by a farmhouse or a town or a temple and imagine that the world continued like that. What would happen if you just walked in a straight line, day after day? If there is an edge, would it be a wall or more like the edge of a table? If a wall, what lies behind it? If a table, what would you see if you looked down? And if you could fly straight up, would you hit something? And finally, in those days everybody knew that the world is full of supernatural beings that you never saw. Is there a domain somewhere on Earth or perhaps up in the sky where these beings spend their time? Unless they are invisible, they have to be somewhere. This chapter is about how people have imagined the layout of the Earth and the regions around it, how the Earth started, and some things that have happened to change it. It is just a beginning; these questions will be looked at from many angles as the story develops.

1.1 THE BIBLICAL UNIVERSE

In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void;and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. On the third day God separated land from water beneath the firmament and created the vegetable kingdom; on the fourth: Sun, Moon, and stars; on the fifth: birds and fish; on the sixth: animals, a man, and a woman, and on the seventh day he rested.

The mind cries out for more. Why was all this done, and how? The Bible doesn't say. Was the watery waste there to begin with? Some Judaic commentators imagine a wild chaos that had to be tamed by an act of will before the work of creation could begin. Others say no: first there was nothing, then water, then light. We shall return to the question in chapter 5. What is clear is that the watery waste came first, and next came light and the imposition of a plan where there was no plan. Where do we look if we want to see the plan? Look at a forest or a pond. Each is a collection of plants and animals, insects and creatures too small to see. No appearance of order there, but think how they combine to make a living environment. One creature eats another; later it nourishes a third. A bee on the way to its hive leaves a grain of pollen on a flower whose seed will nourish other creatures. Flowers bloom at different times so that bees will be kept busy. The order of the natural world is more apparent in the way it functions than in the way it looks.

When the Bible begins all we see is water, but underneath is a layer of earth. So that this can appear, God creates a great sky-vault known as the firmament. One might have supposed that its purpose, in that barren land, was to raise the celestial waters above the earth, but the Bible says it was to separate water from water. Even in a dry countryside, every inhabited place is near water, flowing on the surface or a few feet down in a well. You may remember that a few generations later, when the Flood came, water spurted out of the ground to augment the rain. The authors of Genesis saw humanity living in a bubble with water above and below. A midrash, or comment, says: "Why did he separate them? Because the upper water is a male, whilst the nether water is female, and when they desired to unite they threatened to destroy the world. The water roared up mountains and hurtled down hills, the male in hot pursuit of the female, until the Holy One, blessed be He, rebuked them ... Between the upper and nether worlds are but three finger breadths, and the vault of the firmament interposes to keep them apart." We shall see that the bubble has a long history.

The vault is raqia in Hebrew; the word often refers to a pot hammered out of copper. Later, when Job's young neighbor Elihu reproaches him for his protest against God's injustice, he contrasts God's greatness with that of any mortal: "Can you as he [did] beat out the vault of the skies, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" Beneath the vault moved the Sun, stars, and angels. How high was it? When Moses took Aaron and seventy elders of Israel to meet with the Lord, they walked up Mount Sinai "and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was, as it were, a pavement of sapphire, clear blue as the very heavens." There is an inconsistency here, for later the Lord told Moses, "No man shall see me and live." The conventional explanation is that the seventy elders saw the vault from below. Figure 1.1, from the Regensberg Pentateuch, c. 1300, shows Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and handing them to the Elders below. The Lord stands on a vault painted blue. Moses stands on what is perhaps a tree stump and is careful not to look behind him.

Here, then, is a vision of a world that functions with the aid of divine powers. In modern terms it resembles a submarine with windows. From time to time the windows are opened to let water come in and nourish the rivers and soil, and for a few years manna dropped down from Heaven to relieve the Lord's people as they wandered in the desert. Above the vault was water; perhaps on its shore was the City of God where Ezekiel, seated on a sapphire throne, saw a figure resembling a man who spoke to him and told him to prophesy. That is about all we learn about the geography of Heaven from the canonical scriptures, but later writers filled what they must have perceived as a vacuum. The most complete account, and the source of many conventional ideas of Heaven, is the apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul, a Greek text that probably originated in Egypt about the middle of the third century. It takes off from a passage in 2 Corinthians 12 in which Saint Paul says that he once felt he was "caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." Later, his guardian angel shows him the mysteries of Heaven and Hell. After Paul has seen how the souls of the recently dead are sorted out according to their deserts, he is raised to the third and highest heaven. The angel leads him through a gold door above which are inscribed the names of the just-not only their names but their pictures, so that every angel will know them. Paul is greeted by Enoch and Elijah and is shown the premises, but he is forbidden to tell anyone what he has seen or heard.

Then the angel carries Paul down to a place where they stand on top of the firmament. This is paradise, the second heaven. As one might expect, there is a river of milk and honey, and countless trees bear a variety of fruits. A grape arbor contains ten thousand vines, each one supporting ten thousand thousand bunches and in each of these a thousand single grapes. Paul and the angel walk to the Acherusian Lake, whiter than milk, on which is a golden ship, "and about three thousand angels were singing a hymn before me till I arrived at the City of Christ, all of gold and encircled with twelve walls ... And there were twelve gates in the circuit of the city, of great beauty, and four rivers that encircle it." The river of honey is called Pison, that of milk is Euphrates, that of oil is Gion, and the river of wine is Tigris. On their banks he is greeted by several Patriarchs. Except for Tigris, the names of these rivers are the same as those in Genesis 2:10 given to the four rivers that flow from (and not around) the Garden of Eden. In the center of the city, next to a great altar, stands David, holding a psaltery and harp. He sings "Alleluia!" in a voice that fills the city, and the people respond with an alleluia that shakes its foundations.

The story skips over the first heaven, which I suppose is Eden (we will look for it in the Intermission); then Paul is shown the torments of Hell. This much will do, and we can go back to the scriptural account.

* * *

Below the ground and its surface waters, far down, lay Sheol, where the dead pass their silent existence. Classical Judaism is concerned with the fate of the community of Israel more than with that of individuals, but in about the fourth century BCE the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells what the dead may expect: "One and the same fate comes to all, just and unjust alike, good and bad ... True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. There is no more reward for them; all memory of them is forgotten." But Ecclesiastes always takes a gloomy view, and later books of the Bible suggest an afterlife. Perhaps two hundred years after Ecclesiastes, the prophet Daniel foretells the end of the world when the Jews will at last be delivered, and "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence. The wise leaders will shine like the bright vault of Heaven, and those who have guided the people in the true path will be like the stars for ever and ever." It is easy enough to draw diagrams of the cosmos as the Bible describes it, and many have done so, but as one reads the text it is clear that the writers were not thinking in diagrams. The visions are fragmentary, but no one tells us what lies below Sheol or how a city can be poised above the firmament. These are idle questions; they have nothing to do with the story and are not thought about. In fact, in the Mishnah, a collection of teachings of early rabbis, one of the rabbis declares: "Whosoever reflects on four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world-what is above; what is beneath; what is before, and what is after."

Compare this sketch of the cosmos with the actuality of Palestine's stony landscape, and see how much imagination has added to it, all around, above, below. That is the biblical model, but what a model looks like is only part of the story. Much more interesting is how it functions. But before we go further with the miraculous bubble that Genesis describes, we had better look inside some other bubbles that had already formed nearby.

1.2 TALES FROM SUMER AND EGYPT

History starts in Sumer and Egypt; before that we had spearpoints, pots, and silence. History is defined as written, and since about 3300 BCE Sumerian and Egyptian texts have survived: Sumerian on clay tablets marked with a stick and then baked, Egyptian scratched into stone. Sumerian was spoken in what is now southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates flow into the Persian Gulf, and its speakers were the dominant power there for the next thousand years. The oldest Sumerian writings are receipts and tax records, but after a few centuries came libraries and literature. The Sumerians' language is unrelated to any other that is known. It was deciphered because when the Akkadians, a new population, arrived, they produced bilingual inscriptions as well as handbooks for translating Sumerian documents into their own Semitic tongue which can be read. Spoken Sumerian died out, but just as ancient Greek survives among us, the richness of Sumerian literature kept the written language alive for another two millennia.

One broken Sumerian tablet, inscribed about 2100 BCE-a thousand years before the earliest parts of the Bible were written-introduces an epic poem with a preface that tells how the world began:

After Heaven had been moved away from Earth, After Earth had been separated from Heaven, After the name of man had been fixed ...

From the Akkadians a couple of centuries later, we learn how the separation took place. In this version, known as the Enuma elish, Apsu and Tiamat are lovers; Apsu is the fresh water under the earth, and his consort Tiamat is the stormy and untamed sea. (The watery waste in Genesis is called tehom, related to Tiamat.) The story begins:

When skies above were not yet named Nor Earth below pronounced by name, Apsu, the first one, their begetter And maker Tiamat, who bore them all, Had mixed their waters together, But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds; When yet no gods were manifest, Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed, Then gods were born within them.

Apsu and Tiamat are fresh and salt water, but they are bodies also, and the sons born of their union are imprisoned inside Tiamat or between the loving parents. After a while, the sons begin to make so much noise that Apsu can't sleep. With the aid of an evil counselor he plots to kill them, but they learn of the plan. There are struggles; Tiamat brings forth an army of dragons and poisonous snakes, perhaps as depicted in figure 1.2. The fighting goes on, and finally Marduk, one of Tiamat's descendants, organizes an army of gods, defeats Tiamat, and, in the language of Genesis, separates the waters from the waters. The story turns into blood and thunder and Marduk kills his mother. "He divided her monstrous shape and created marvels from it. He sliced her in half like a fish for drying: half of her he put up to roof the sky"; then he puts up constellations corresponding to the great gods, makes the Moon and decrees its changes, and creates various geographical features out of her entrails; the details are not pretty. Finally, he executes the evil counselor, and from his blood he creates humankind so that the gods will no longer have to toil in fields and irrigation ditches to support themselves.

Those first human beings were useful for labor but they were rough and barbarous, almost like animals. Then out of the Persian Gulf crawled a strange creature. It had the body of a fish, but attached to it underneath were the head and feet of a man (fig. 1.3). It announced its name as Oannes and began teaching humans the arts of civilization: writing, mathematics, agriculture, how to build a city, how to make laws. Each night it returned to the water, and after it had finished its mission it was seen no more.

Is it strange to portray the sky as a creature's body, or half of one? I suspect nobody, if asked, would have said he or she thought that Tiamat's huge bulk was actually up there. The history of language gives some insight. There is no gender in Sumerian, but in the old Semitic languages, which include Akkadian and the ancestors of modern Hebrew, everything was either masculine or feminine. Proto-Indo-European seems to have had a few words with neuter gender, and its descendants Latin and Greek had more. Modern Greek and German have kept the neuter, but it has dropped from French and Italian and the other Romance languages descended from Latin. English speakers encounter gender as a ridiculous and unnecessary bother, but at the time the ancestral tongues were developing it seems that their speakers regarded everything around them as having some qualities of life and every process as more or less a living process. If this is so, then for them distinctions of gender must have been as essential to talking about a thing as they are for us when we talk about a person. Collectors of the world's myths find that in many of them, as in the Akkadian story, Earth and Sky are portrayed as living creatures.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Grand Contraption by David Park Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

What People are saying about this

Philip Ball
The Grand Contraption is the long-needed antidote to all those top-heavy histories of scientific thought that pass brusquely over the philosophies of the ancient world, eager to find the sure footing of modernity. Park tells us not only what science now knows, but how it got to know it: from an enthralling mix of myth, genius, logic, careful observation, guesswork, invention, and a dash of inspired lunacy.
Philip Ball, author of "Life's Matrix" and consultant editor, "Nature"
Paul T. & Elizabeth Wayland Barber
An exceptional and well-written introduction to the history of ideas, viewed from the perspective of their creators, who were adapting their thinking to new facts and conceptions as they went. We found the book engrossing and illuminating.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, coauthors of "When They Severed Earth from Sky"
Elizabeth and Paul T. Wayland
An exceptional and well-written introduction to the history of ideas, viewed from the perspective of their creators, who were adapting their thinking to new facts and conceptions as they went. We found the book engrossing and illuminating.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, coauthors of "When They Severed Earth from Sky"
Owen Gingerich
Physics, astronomy, geology, and poetry all come together here in the grand quest to understand what out universe is and how it works. "Only a handful of authors have both the expertise and the courage to write a book of this sweep and depth. David Park has woven together a vast tapestry of humankind's vision of the cosmos, from ancient myths to our contemporary curiosity about intelligent life on other worlds.
Owen Gingerich. Professor of Astronomy & the History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Schweber
This book literally grabs you. The facts presented, the stories told, the author's reflections on the information he presents, are rendered beautifully-and masterfully. This is a labor of love, and the passion with which David Park has written the book is readily apparent and makes one want to keep on reading. And in doing so one is richly rewarded with keen insights, judicious appraisals, and with questions regarding courses of action and consequences that are not only thought provoking but also relevant.
Silvan S. Schweber, Brandeis University and Harvard University, author of "QED and the Men Who Made It" (Princeton)
Christian Wildberg
The Grand Contraption is an impressive feat of scholarship in the history of science, and it is even more impressive if one considers that it is written in clear and unpretentious English. Park offers, in plain language, an attractive way to think about cosmological ideas from a single perspective. No one will put this book down without having their level of consciousness raised by a few notches.
Christian Wildberg, Princeton University

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >