There’s a battle raging right now on Twitter about the receptions of two shows. HBO’s mob drama-slash-family soap opera The Sopranos and HBO’s writer drama-slash girl gang soap opera Sex and the City and, obviously as happens with so many of these kinds of debates, it has turned into a battle of the sexes.
The Sopranos clearly appeals to the male fantasy, after all don’t men spend their days fantasising about murdering their best friends due to betrayals of trust, having abusive mothers, panic attacks and needing therapy and having their family fall apart before their eyes before, presumably, being shot in the head and fading to black?
Sex and the City clearly appeals to the female fantasy, after all don’t women spend their days fantasising going through endless dramas, relationships, make-ups, break-ups, getting cancer, losing jobs, having unhappy marriages, terrible families, having to balance all of that with a career and then finally having it all wrap up in the end because at least you end up with the right man?
To an extent they’re both ludicrous, both dated, both sexist and both stupid – I should know, I’ve watched both.
Now I know the question you’re asking. Why would a manly man in his 30s have seen all of Sex and the City, were you drunk/high/trying to get laid and the answer is – another question! Why does that matter? (also you’re a massive sexist, but let me explain where I think the problem lies.)
Did I relate more to one than the other? Yes. The Sopranos spoke more to me than Sex and the City but did I feel one more valid than the other? One ‘better’ than the other? No.
I think the issue lies in interpretation, not sex and gender. I’m a working-class bloke and yet I’ve seen musicals, opera, plays, TV shows of all kinds, anime, paintings, sculpture etc. etc. There are some things I love (like music) and some things I enjoy less (like paintings) but there is validity in all of it. Were some of these things stuff that, as a man, of my class, I shouldn’t be indulging in? Why yes. But in the famous words of Rage Against the Machine “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” There’s a reason I want to take it all in, and that is because often those things that are the least relatable to me are the things that can teach me most about myself and others.
The problem that I think we are dealing with is one of frames of reference.
We can look at all art as valid, and ask what of ourselves, if anything, we see in it. If we see nothing of ourselves we can ask ourselves why.
Or we can look for the art we see some of ourselves in, ask why we see nothing of ourselves in everything else, and ask the art why.
In one, art is a mirror for self; we probe the mirror to get a virtual, reflected image of us. Sometimes it isn’t accurate, sometimes we see other things we recognise reflected and sometimes, like Count Dracula, we see no reflection at all, but merely take in the ambience of the scene.
In the other, our selves are the mirror and art must be reflected in us to be valid. If we do not see our own selves reflected back at us it must be the art that’s the problem. It’s not taking into account X, Y or Z issue, not reflecting X, Y or Z culture.
Now don’t get me wrong, a lack of representation is definitely an issue in media. In the western, American-European dominated sphere, anyway. But I rarely get the feeling that’s what people are arguing about.
In this instance the issue I am seeing is that a show about so-called ‘white men’ (although the question of whether Italian-Americans can be considered ‘white’ in American culture is a whooooole different discussion) is only considered ‘better’ than a show about white women because men.
Yet is there something of all of us reflected in each? Definitely. The Sopranos features some of the best written female characters in modern television and Sex and the City has some surprisingly insightful moments that can inform men about the juggling act of masculinity and strength versus emotion and vulnerability. Neither is a unisex experience. If anything they’re all very trans exclusionary!
What is more, certain experiences are neither male, female or non-binary, neither black nor white, they’re of no fixed religion, no specific identity, they’re universal.
On that note, though, here are my recommendations – If you want a great show about the bittersweet nature of success as it causes your whole life to collapse around you watch Bojack Horseman. If you want a humorous look at what it is to be a woman in modern Western society, balancing old-fashioned misogynistic expectations with your hopes, dreams and ambitions watch Tuca and Bertie. Both are not Netflix, both are fantastic and certainly Tuca and Bertie did not get the love or respect it deserves.
Myth: The best way to understand people in the past is with present-day attitudes.
Fact: Why are we even doing facts any more? Historiography is about interpretation! But it’s difficult to interpret past cultures through a present-day lens.
You might think, sometimes, that people in the past were really stupid.
They didn’t understand that germs cause disease; they didn’t have proper science; there’s a lot, we think, that they didn’t understand and we do. But we’ve got these wonderful things called science and progress, so we can look back on the past when they had less science and less progress and judge the past that way! Right?
Not quite. Here’s why.
The Past is a Foreign Country
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
It’s a cliché now, but it’s a cliché for a reason: the past was seriously fucking different. People believed different things, went about their days differently, had a completely different conception of the world. Sure, there were some similarities – but generally the deeper you dig down, the weirder you find history gets.
Generally, it’s kind of difficult to think outside the belief system you have. If you’re really religious, and I tell you there’s no God, my atheism is probably pretty alien to you. If you believe in magic and I can’t see how your magic works, we’re not going to be able to agree. Actually, my no-gods-no-magic system might seem pretty alien or boring to you, just as believing in magic is pretty alien to me. And it might be difficult for us to bridge that gap.
When I do history, I’m always thinking about the beliefs people in the past had and the information they had, too – because the information they had would have been different, and sometimes they would have had less of it. I partly know this because people tell me this when I interview them – they’ll say “well, back in the 1970s we didn’t know this and that and the other…”. In their memories, it has a profound effect. And that was 50 years ago! Imagine 500 years ago! People change, cultures change, ideas change. If you want to understand how people think, you have to meet them on their terms.
Missing the Weird
Another reason presentism isn’t great for doing history is that it means you miss out on a lot.
Take thinking about science (again, yes, I know I harp on about this a lot). If you had a quick “history” lesson in a science textbook about Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday or Marie Curie or whoever, you might have read a couple of paragraphs that basically went: “Once upon a time people were stupid and didn’t know about this, then this super-smart-clever person came along and discovered a cool thing, now science is more advanced, the end.” It’s a kind of “history” that puts the cart before the horse: the writers know where they wanted to end up (telling you about the cool science thing) and arrange the history around that.
Most historians are a bit different. We don’t think about our work as leading up to a predetermined conclusion, but we do want to explore all the possibilities, the what-could-have-beens, the things that existed and maybe never really went anywhere – or maybe they do survive today, but not in forms we expect. The past is weird and presentism squashes and confines all that weirdness.
Our Weird Present
Now I’m going to go full wanky postmodernist historian and ask: how much do we actually know? How much have we actually progressed?
On the surface, I guess the answer is pretty obvious. Yes, we have made progress. Running water, heating and electricity are widely available in the West. We can talk to each other via phones and the internet at any hour of the day or night. We can fly around the world and even go to space. People centuries ago couldn’t have dreamed of doing this. We have made important breakthroughs. I don’t want to downplay that.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of knowledge we’ve lost. We don’t know how to make black glass. The secret to making Roman concrete was lost for thousands of years. Even closer to today, some people rely on ageing medical technologies and often people don’t know how to maintain or repair these old medical devices. Knowledge can and does disappear surprisingly quickly. That’s not progress.
And yes, we have all these devices – but how many people know how to build or maintain them? That’s specialist knowledge, developed over years, and it’s often difficult to explain to outsiders – I know, because getting people to explain their specialist knowledge to me is my job, and it’s a bloody hard one sometimes.
Now, given that the examples I’ve given are from the US and UK, we could just throw our hands up and say Brits and Americans are uniquely stupid, and maybe the rest of the world has made some progress. I’m…not entirely sure that’s true? I think people in most countries have weird, entrenched beliefs, because most humans have weird, entrenched beliefs. We haven’t built up to this perfect period where everyone is super-smart and rational, and we’re not receding from an imaginary Golden Age of rationality. People are just weird. We’ve believed weird things since before we could write those weird things. The last ever human is going to believe some pretty weird shit, too. Understanding that weird stuff, with all its weird possibilities, is key to doing history.
Myth: The best way to understand history is by looking at important people and understanding their qualities.
Fact: Uh…not really. Maybe sort of? It gets complicated.
When you sat through history lessons at school you might have learned about kings and queens, or if there’s a show on TV it’s probably about a bunch of historical figures. Biographies are pretty much always popular; movies, books, everywhere you look people want to hear about other people doing stuff and being important.
Against the seductive power of hearing about people doing stuff, you’ve got a lot of people who seemingly don’t like to hear about people doing stuff. These people will complain about “Great Man History”, and insist you read books about it or you’re doing history bad and wrong.
So – what is the “great man” theory of history and what’s so wrong with it?
The Great Man Theory
To tackle this bit of bad history we’re going to…have to do a little bit of history.
Hopefully in this Bad History series, we’re getting to show that lots of people have lots of different ideas about how to do history. This isn’t just something that cropped up when historians discovered the internet – we’ve been arguing about how to write history probably since people started writing history down! But for the Great Man theory, the important parts start in the 19th century with a guy called Thomas Carlyle. Thomas was a writer-historian-essayist-philosopher-mathematican-all-around-too-bloody-smart guy who wrote a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. He argued that history is shaped by special, “great” individuals, thanks to their special qualities as people (and maybe with a bit of divine inspiration thrown in). On Heroes is a book that makes some pretty grand claims – partly because it started out as a series of lectures aimed at making easy-ish money for our Thomas – but this one sticks out:
“The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.”
Well, that’s a pretty grand claim. And it’s one that is at the heart of the Great Man theory of history: people, mostly men, who are inherently special and important in some way, are ultimately what change the world. Things like social, economic and health conditions can play a part, but ultimately it all comes down to some people being special. If we study what makes them special, we can also be like them and change the world.
(This is why Great Man theories sometimes come up in leadership and management – the idea is that by studying important people, you can become an effective leader. Your mileage may vary as to how well this works.)
Even Thomas Carlyle probably wasn’t that great of a man – it’s not like he sat down to write his lectures one day and went “perfect, I’ll come up with a new theory about history”! He based his ideas on thoughts that people had already had about heroes and heroism.
Thomas Carlyle influenced people like the American poet-essayist-philosopher-these-people-did-too-fucking-much Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it’s not like he wrote one book and everyone went “we love this theory”! Half a century later, biologist-philosopher Herbert Spencer would lay into Thomas because he believed that people were more a product of their environment – that environment would thereby shape action, not special great people.
(Oh, and by the way? That’s the “survival of the fittest” guy. He made that phrase up. Man, the 19th century really was just full of Very Serious People picking fights.)
And, of course, Karl Marx laid into Thomas. Ol’ Karl was big on understanding material conditions and class struggle to understand history, and he was not best pleased about thinking about history as the lives of special rich people. This is why lots of people influenced by Marx (so, a lot of people – this isn’t a big conspiracy, Marx is just an important thinker, hell, I’m influenced by Marx!) will look down on anything that looks like Great Man theory.
So, Great Man theory was controversial even a couple of decades after Thomas came up with it. It’s not like everyone was writing Great Man history and thought it was awesome until some jumped-up professors had a problem with it. People have been dunking on it since the nineteenth century!
But what’s wrong with Great Man history anyway?
Not Just People
This kind of depends on how much influence you think individuals have over the course of events. If you think it’s primarily people who shape events and that economics, culture and health take a back seat, you’ll love Great Man history. If you think it’s important to understand systems and not just a handful of people, you won’t like Great Man history much – if at all.
Now, I think society, culture and material conditions affect what people can do – and that this is broadly more important than how individuals act. I think this because I like looking at what people believed back in the olden days, and seeing how it shaped their actions. I think sometimes you can live through big, terrible, scary events and there’s nothing much you as an individual can do about them (thanks, coronavirus pandemic). But if you think individuals are big enough to shape society and culture singlehandedly, you’ll like Great Man theory and me (or anyone really) harping on about its faults isn’t likely to change your mind.
There are also things that may look like Great Man history but are not, so let’s talk about them.
People Can Do Things
Some people take one look at Great Man history, decide anything that involves individuals is Great Man history, and spend the rest of their time yelling about how anything with individuals is bad and wrong history.
Those people are missing the point.
The problem with Great Man history is not that it involves certain people, it’s that it says history happens because some people are special and more important than the societies and cultures they live in – and that’s just not true. Sometimes, though, people are special and do have special knowledge.
I do a lot of research on the history of space science and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory – the UK’s oldest space science centre, housed in a 19th-century mansion in the middle of nowhere. (Yes, really.) Every single person I’ve interviewed has had special knowledge that they try to explain to other people, like me, and all these people are important because nobody on Earth has their specific combination of knowledge and experience. This is similar where you’re looking at any kind of history with specialist knowledge, like fashion history or food history. Acknowledging the experiences of the people I interviewed isn’t Great Man history: they still do the work they do within wider societies and cultures. But it is important to understanding how space science has developed.
People Like People
The other thing is something that I tried to get at while writing the introduction: people like hearing about people, especially when they don’t want to slog through 20 pages of academic-ese. People are intereresting and entertaining. Analysis of material conditions? Eh, that can just be…boring in the wrong hands?
So that means people like biography. People like hearing about what other people got up to. Even when it’s not the most accurate or useful way to look at the world, it’s still one of the most accessible – hell, I did it when talking about Thomas Carlyle!
That doesn’t mean you have to do Great Man history – it’s totally possible to acknowledge the societies and cultures these people grew up in. Actually, I think it makes for a more interesting biography! But it explains part of the pull of Great Man history, and also some of the vehement reactions against anything that even looks like it.
People are interesting and we all want to think they’re great and special. Truth is, they’re not, and it’s not helpful – but it’s fun to look at people as people anyway.
When I was last at the Flavian Amphitheatre, I overheard a guide talking about how there were grand plans in the works to restore the floor to some of its former glory. The Flavian Amphitheatre was named after its patron, Titus Flavius Vespasianus – better known to us as the emperor Vespasian – and his family the Flavians, but you’d know it better as the Colosseum. It’s not called that because it’s bloody big, but because it was built near to a gigantic statue of the former emperor Nero that the future emperor Hadrian had moved closer to it. These proposed new works would allow demonstrations of how the floor, the theatre and all its theatrical magic, would have worked, and for new performances to take place in the historic amphitheatre.
Of course any talk like that is subject to change, delay, corruption and cancellation so you think nothing of it. However now it appears the Italian government is stumping up the cash (nearly €20m, or about £18m) to make that a reality.
Currently the old floor is mostly missing, revealing the networks of tunnels and chambers that were beneath the stage itself, essentially the ‘backstage’ area, known as the ‘hypogeum’. This is where stage-hands controlling trap doors would have worked their magic, animals would have been caged and gladiators would have paced nervously.
So will everyone be happy about this? Of course not! Any restoration project of a monument of the significance of the Colosseum will cause issues. There should be little doubt that making more money is likely one of the driving factors and often profits get in the way of good practice. Also any major structural works are liable to cause problems in other areas of the structure. If, for example, they are hoping to be able to use the area for gathering of 50,000 people or more then that is 50,000 people’s worth of wear and tear, per event, to be accounted for. It’s a messy problem with no simple solution.
But gripping onto the Colosseum as a relic, a museum piece to be seen and not touched, hidden behind glass and treated with kid gloves – that was never its intended purpose and I have to ask myself the question: what would the original planner, the person who started building the theatre think?
Vespasian was a fucking peasant by comparison to the Julio-Claudian line that had come before him. He was technically an ‘equestrian’ by Roman class – sort of an upper-middle class guy. Whilst Nero was busy trying to turn Rome into a new Greek cultural wonderland, Vespasian was busy quelling the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem and before he’d had time to wrap up Nero had taken his own life and three other wannabes were claiming to be emperor – Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Rome had another civil war on her hands and it would have been a long and bloody one if not for one simple fact. Vespasian was fuckin’ ‘ard, mate! I plan to write a series about key figures in Roman history so I’ll hit you with more detail later, but Vespasian’s ascent to Emperor was almost inevitable the moment he decided to go for it.
During his reign Nero had built this obnoxious, yet technologically marvellous, palace known as the Domus Aurea – the Golden House. This, he thought, was exactly what the people needed after a fire had ravaged huge parts of Rome in 64CE. Allegedly blinged beyond the ken of even the most arrogant gangster rapper, it apparently had a steam powered spinning statue of Nero himself. Imagine if a disaster struck your country and your government decided the best way to cheer you up was to build gold statues of themselves. That’s what happened.
Needless to say Vespasian was a man of more practicality and less sentimental stupidity than Nero, he knew the people would need buildings. Panem et circenses – bread and circuses – were, after all, what kept the Roman populace happy. Smack bang near the middle of this Domus Aurea, where Nero had had a lake built, Vespasian had it drained and used that site to begin construction of what has since remained one of the pinnacles of Roman architecture and a symbol of Romanness – Romanitas – itself. Romans did not just build buildings to be marvelled at, they also had to be used.
Future Emperors would tear down, repurpose or bury other parts of the Domus Aurea, but the Colosseum remains, emblematic.
I don’t think Vespasian would mind it being given a lick of paint, a rivet or strut here or there, or some re-facing and re-cladding, if he knew the people were still deriving pleasure from a building he commissioned nearly two-thousand years ago.
Vespasian was about practicality, and Romans were about longevity and legacy. So long as it is done right, and no medium or long-term harm comes to the building they, I don’t believe, would have any objection to reviving the Flavian Amphitheatre for the purposes of shows and entertainment. Just…no animal shows, okay? It’s not okay to pit people against lions anymore. Not PC, you know?
It’s self-evident, right? We’re not Romans so at some point or other the Roman Empire must have fallen. I mean people don’t speak Latin anymore – well, not outside of law, medicine, biology, classics, the Catholic clergy and students of Roman history anyway – and they don’t have Roman baths anymore – well, outside of ‘Turkish’ baths that are basically the same as Roman baths – and we don’t organise ourselves into corrupt republics ruled mostly by wealthy elites and power dynasties – well, outside of every major so-called ‘democracy’ on the planet, especially the United States – and they don’t…
You get my point, right? You see there’s a myth of the ‘decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ but if it fell so hard how come we still have its institutions? How come we inherited so much from Rome? Did it ever really fall?
Scholars argue about this, like they do about every stupid little detail. The thing is it’s muddy, blurred, grey and not so classifiable. It’s a matter of opinion, and the only thing scholars hate more than not having answers is having an answer that leaves it up to subjectivity. People, in general, don’t like doubt and uncertainty and one of my missions here at We Lack Discipline is to teach people that chaos is good. There’s shit in this world where we can never ‘know’ and that’s cool, that’s fine. We’re all Curious Idiots™ here and if we knew everything not only is there no need for curiosity, but there’d be no idiots.
Somewhere along the line, around the 5th century, the power in what we call the Western Roman empire shifted from Roman hands into the hands of members of the Germanic tribes – often obnoxiously called ‘barbarians’. This is generally perceived as the ‘end’ of the Roman Empire and is usually dated to the end of the reign of Romulus Augustulus. This is itself a contentious issue with many thinking Julius Nepos, Romulus Augustulus’ dad, was the last emperor. Frankly this does a disservice to their successor Flavius Odoacer – a ‘barbarian’ of Germanic descent who was a leader of what was called the Foederati (the federates, non-Roman military groups acting as mercenaries for the Roman state) who overthrew Augustulus but gets called the King of Italy rather than the Roman Emperor. Are you confused yet? Because it seems almost like a bunch of people, in this case classical historians, who can’t tolerate uncertainty in their timelines want an arbitrary point for the death of Rome and so arbitrarily define one person as one thing, even though they replaced someone whose powers were nearly identical.
To make it more confusing the Roman Empire actually moved east. What some people call the ‘Byzantine’ empire was actually the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital based in Constantinople – modern day Istanbul – as established by the Roman Emperor Constantine. This empire didn’t ‘fall’ until 1453 when the Ottomans, under Sultan Mehmed, besieged Constantinople and overthrew the so-called last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. So the Roman Empire actually continued until 1453? Well, hold your confused horses.
You see, Mehmed and his successors, having deposed the emperor, did not declare Rome dead. They inherited the titles and considered themselves the heirs – and who are we to disagree? There are many Roman Emperors who didn’t earn their title democratically, or by popularity, or through some other peaceful means. They stole it with military might, just as Mehmed did. Well some history scholars think their opinions are more important than those of the conquering Ottoman Sultans, but these people conquered little besides leather patches on tweed jackets, so who cares. Say, then, that we take Mehmed and the Ottomans’ opinions as truth. If that is the case the true fall of the empire occurred between 1918 and 1922 with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
But wait? Are there Roman established institutions that survive beyond that point? Well yes! The head of the Roman state religion held the title of Pontifex Maximus – which translates to the Greatest Pontiff – and a lot of important, powerful people held this title. One Gaius Julius Caesar, best known for being basically one of the most famous people to have ever existed, once held this title and the great Augustus was also Pontifex Maximus. It was a big deal but surely that’s a title that doesn’t exist today, right? Wrong. The head of Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, has the official title ‘Pontifex Maximus’. It had a break in usage in the Catholic tradition, being revived during the Renaissance after renewed interest in classical Roman values, but who are we to deny the lineage of such a title? If we take the Roman Catholic Church as a vital institution inherited from the Roman state then, well, that aspect of the empire is alive to this day.
Roman thought, Roman organisation, Roman institutions, Roman language – it is all still in use today, to some extent. In that regard they have passed on their culture. Meme is not just a term for a stupid online joke or some TikTok of a dancing ferret – in biology or anthropology a meme is a unit of inheritance of an idea. Just as genes are used as instructions for building bodies and life, memes are used for building ideas and cultures. The Roman memes are deeply embedded in all Western cultures. The state may have dissolved, but the ideas that were Rome have remained.
So what about ‘the fall’? The thing is it’s not like all of sudden all Romans and Romanised peoples across their empire, everywhere, suddenly dropped dead at midnight the day Odoacer took over. If the Roman Empire fell it was not in the shock and awe sense we would imagine these days. Many modern historians instead talk of a transition, of things changing and being different. Fuck them, too. One minute people across Europe had running water, leisure time and specialised bath and exercise centres and then two hundred years later they’re living with their pigs and throwing their buckets of shit into the mud outside every day. To deny any aspect of ‘decline’ is to deny the fact that technologies that improved many humans’ quality of life disappeared, lowering that quality of life.
The problem I have is not with the narrative of Rome, its fall and its decline, my issue is with the order of those things. Whether there was a decline before the fall is debated, whether there was a decline after the fall is fact.
Most people want to point to a decline, usually in morals, as being responsible for the fall. Those people are generally conservative dicks and/or Christian dicks, following the nonsensical ramblings of their own cesspit of a church which follows the teachings of Augustine. He was a Christian nutjob who trampled the empire moralising and preaching and heavily influencing Christian thought for centuries. He eventually settled in Britain and we’re sorry for giving him a home. Most of the ideas of the decline are drivel. The factors leading to the loss of Romanhood in the Western empire are many, from the massive to the tiny and it is too chaotic a web to unweave right now. Remember what I said earlier, a little bit of uncertainty is okay, that chaos is good. If we could say for certain what happened and why there’d be little point studying it. Augustine wants to point to all of the aspects that had built Rome into greatness – the selfishness, the expansionism, the exploitation, the profiteering – as also responsible for its demise. In a way he may be right, but he thinks it’s because that’s ungodly. So ungodly it worked more-or-less fine for a millennium before failing.
What happened after, however, should be noted. Big social shifts cause big social losses. I can’t imagine every Roman suddenly forgot how to build sewer systems, maintain their baths, repair their aqueducts, utilise their water wheels, maintain their personal hygiene and many other Roman fundamentals. Again, there may not have been a decline that caused the fall of Rome but there sure as shit was one that followed. Outside of a few select groups and communities life got harder, less fair, less healthy, less warm and less comfortable. Technologies were lost, aqueducts fell into disrepair and building techniques changed. The fact that Western Europe can go from technologically advanced to relatively technologically ignorant in only a couple of centuries is alarming from a modern perspective. What political changes, what shifts in ideas and beliefs, what chaotic mess of decisions that we’re currently too ignorant to unravel could occur that could lead us down the same path? We are even more reliant on our technology than the Romans were.
I have seen the pipes at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Romans used water tanks, raised above the level of the local houses, to provide piped water, at a local level, within their towns and cities, to homes and businesses. The water was pressurised by the height such that a tap or faucet at street level would have sufficient water pressure. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Western Europe would not see a domestic, plumbed water supply until at least the 19th century! Either the Romans were wildly ahead of their time or else techniques and ideas got lost that were not prioritised again until much later. I have to believe more in the latter.
It is easy to look at decline and fall myths, point fingers at our own institutions and say “It’s just like Rome!” but I’m not fussed about what is. What is happening right now is happening and I can influence it directly. There’s no point worrying about it, I just have to choose whether or not to act. The chain of events leading up to now has happened and I can’t do a damn thing about that.
I can worry about what will be, though. I don’t want to lose my running water because politicians fuck it up.
The thing about histories, cultures and ideas is they never ‘fall’. So long as we use Turkish baths, Latin words, and elect representatives to republics Rome will never ‘fall’. There is a continuum. Much of our Western culture – and, due to its impact and dissemination, much of all culture – carries Roman memes just as our cells carry Roman genes. These only fall with total extinction. Rome doesn’t fall until we all do.
Myth: History is just one damn thing after another.
Fact: Uh…kind of? But also not. It’s complicated. Let us explain.
One of the great things about history is that it’s so popular. Walk into pretty much anywhere and you’ll see books about history, articles someone shared on Facebook, podcasts, movies, TV shows, TV channels, you name it and it’s probably got someone doing some history on there!
Academic historians have a…complicated relationship with popular history. Some are all over TV and the internet. Others rail against how pop history is permanently awful (which is unfair, there’s a lot of bad pop history out there but there’s a lot of good stuff too, and there’s some overlap between academic history and pop history). Still others are what’s called public historians – people who tell the general public about history, like people who put on museum displays and stuff. Technically, we’re public historians too here at We Lack Discipline. One of us even works with a museum. Oops.
If you don’t do academic history, half of the shit academic historians say doesn’t make sense. And to be honest, even if you’re an academic historian half of the shit academic historians say doesn’t make sense either! History is just so broad and there are so many different ways to do it that it’s very difficult to keep on top of what’s going on outside your own little patch. If you know about the history of science, that doesn’t mean you know about the history of fashion or the history of food.
That’s where the problems start! Because history is so broad and nobody can possibly know about all of it, you’ve got to fill people in and explain exactly what bit of the past you’re talking about, and also explain exactly why any of us should care about the South Sea Bubble or whatever (unfortunately not a literal bubble, it’s an economic bubble). This is what pop history is mostly about, and also certain different kinds of history – for example, a lot of different histories written by scientists read like they’re telling you one damn thing after another.
Today, academic historians don’t do this. They make arguments about how and why stuff happened – just listing what stuff happened in order doesn’t cut it, especially as sometimes we pretty much know what happened but not necessarily why! In my research I study space history. We more or less know what got into space, but we don’t know so much about how or why certain missions succeed or fail. So while I do have to write about what happened, it’s more important to explain how and why it happened.
But that doesn’t mean writing about what happened is bad – it means explaining the how and the why, and looking at that from all sides, is important too. History is way more than just one damn thing after another.
History is a weird subject. You do it at school and you sort of go through a mishmash of the Egyptians and the Romans and the medieval times, until you skip forward to the Tudors and then the Victorians and finally World War 2 – unless maybe you skip back again and do World War 1. By then, you’re 13 or 14 and kind of sick of having to write about biased sources, so you probably drop it.
At least, you think you drop it. But you see statues around you and blue plaques, and when you scroll through Facebook that one guy who never quite got over secondary school is yelling about how we can’t take down statues because that destroys history and when you open Twitter for a break some journalist is yelling at some historian over something to do with the Blitz. Who the fuck cares?!
Turns out, a lot of people do. History is quite literally everywhere around us, from old shows to old clothes to old photos to documentaries to a world that is far too stuck in the past for its own good! And how we think about the past tells us a lot about how we think about the present: people make appeals to what they think our past is. The past, and the stories we tell about it, give us stories about where we come from that we believe on a pretty deep level. The fancy word for this is “historiography” – writing about history.
The problem? Most of those stories are…well…just stories. Not even necessarily particularly good ones, kind of like when you go and watch a movie that promised to be THE BEST THING EVER and it turns out that the plot kind of falls apart if you think about it for more than 0.5 seconds. And these are supposed to be the things we believe about ourselves?! Come on. What utter bullshit.
Mostly, people spend thousands of pounds going to university to learn about this. It shouldn’t have to be this way. The ideas behind historiography are not that hard or that rare that they need to be locked away.
This series is going to be about bad history and specifically bad historiography – what makes stories fall apart? Why? And who gets to tell them?
Join us for sporadic and hopefully entertaining updates!
It’s not that nobody wants one, they’re awesome. They’re also the single biggest frustration and disappointment in astronomy in terms of expectation versus reality.
Ask yourself these questions – do you know the difference between a Newtonian, a Dobsonian and a Maksutov-Cassegrain? Do you even know the correct pronunciation of ‘Maksutov-Cassegrain’? Because I don’t! Can you work out the best useful magnification of your scope by using only the focal length, aperture and the size of your lens? Can you correctly set up and use an equatorial mount? Are you actually insane and want to spend frozen, late evenings gazing at what are mostly the same tiny pin-pricks of light only slightly magnified?
If you can answer all those questions, the last one positively, then a telescope might, actually be for you. In which case, what are you doing? Go get one! Have fun, go on! Fuck off!
Now, for the rest of you, here are the home truths.
Telescopes will baffle you with a variety of names, types and mounts but really they come in two categories: cheap and really fiddly or expensive and even fiddlier. They’re an actual pain in the arse. Most of the inexpensive ones you can get are going to be utter shite, in which case get yourself a set of decent 15×70 binoculars instead, they will be just as good if not better and about half the price.
I will say this with certainty if this is something you’re thinking of getting as a present for your kiddo because they’ve got some Saturn pyjamas and mentioned they like the Sun once. Don’t bother with a telescope. Especially if you can’t be arsed to do all the hard work, the setting up, the learning optics, the understanding seeing conditions, the positioning the telescope, the finding of the objects – if you are not interested in the hobby, I appreciate you trying to encourage your child but what you’re essentially doing is giving a kid who can’t drive a Ferrari because they like watching Formula 1 on the telly. Don’t do it.
Seriously, get them some binoculars. Maybe you can use them for birdwatching, planespotting, shipspotting or nosing on what the neighbours are up to. They have multiple functions and purposes, are easy to store when not in use, are portable and usually come with a strap to carry them about your neck so they’re technically hands-free. They’re so easy to use you just point your face at what you want to look at with them over your eyes. That’s the whole tutorial!
Telescopes are big, conspicuous to the neighbours, unless you get a correcting lens everything you see in them is upside down anyway, they’re usually massive, hard to store and only conveniently wrap around someone’s neck when they say “I’m sorry, I’ve just nudged it, can you find Jupiter for me again?” for the 100th time.
Surely the views make it all worthwhile though? Nah, mate. The first time I looked at the Orion nebula through my binoculars I felt the awe of the overwhelming spectacle the universe was affording me. The first time I saw it through my telescope I tried to wipe the lens because I thought condensation had fogged it.
Those bright discs of planets, bright, burning balls of stars, those colourful nebulae and gorgeous swirling galaxies you’ve seen in magazines, on the BBC or on Reddit? All bullshit. Astrophotographers are the second best visual liars outside of whoever takes modelling shots of the Kardashians. There are many techniques that go into making a gorgeous astronomical photograph but the main one is stacking, which is when a composite image of something is made by taking hundreds or even thousands of images of the same thing and layering them to create the bold contrasts and colours. That is not to discredit the art, I appreciate it very much and think that some of the technique that goes into making great astrophotography is genius. It’s just not what you see through your telescope, with your eyes, in real time.
Through the actual eyepiece it all looks a lot less defined, a lot dimmer and a lot less colourful.
Don’t get it twisted, I ain’t about to tell you this means telescopes are shit. They’re not. Just don’t expect to point your scope at Mars and see two Martians shagging at the peak of Olympus Mons, with the presumably male Martian giving you a knowing thumbs up. It ain’t happening. I’ve been able to make out the bands of colour on Jupiter, I am hoping to make out the massive storm, the Great Red Spot, at some point, but I can’t see it yet. I’ve seen the rings of Saturn, they’re amazing, but I can’t see the Cassini division, the gap between the rings, yet. Using a telescope takes a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of patience and a lot of learning. They are not as point and shoot as binoculars, and what you see will not look like the pictures.
Then there’s actually finding stuff in the sky. Half of telescopy is throwing your arms up in the air and saying “Where the fuck’s that gone now!?” and if you’re not ready for that you’re going to have a bad time.
Many telescopes come with what are called finder scopes but you still have to know what you’re looking at or for, and where it is. If you don’t, good luck. Yeah, you can buy incredibly expensive scopes where you just tap in the numbers and it points at the right thing, and can even track it, but if you’re rich enough that you’d get one of those on a whim just stop reading, fuck off and do it and throw a few grand at We Lack Discipline while you’re burning money. Most people will not get one of those, they will get cold hands, fiddly controls and a whole lot of looking at the stuff they don’t care to see.
Me, I enjoy it. I go out with my scope and a couple of apps to help me know what’s about, I point at this, I find that, I look for this and then eventually I get bored of knowing and point at the empty spaces to see what’s there. That’s the charm of it to me. But I’m not twelve years old with a PlayStation at home. A space kid can get turned off real quick if you’re not prepared to make your observing an event. I’d think of it more like fishing, set aside a few hours, take some snacks and supplies, take some flasks of hot drink and make an evening of it.
So are you still actually determined to get a telescope? If you’re still going to do that after all my warnings, after everything I have said then do me a massive favour. Either do extensive research on what is available within your budget, consider the space it will take up and where you will store it, learn the types of telescopes and lenses and how they may work for you or, let me give you the easy mode.
A minimum 130p Dobsonian telescope.
3 x lenses of different sizes (one large, e.g. 25-35mm, one medium e.g. 9-12.5mm and one small e.g. 4-6mm)
A decent 2X Barlow lens (Celestron do some decent ones for around £30-40 but if you’re a real peasant like me the SvBony is about £20 on Amazon or £10 on AliExpress, though that comes with the China shipping wait).
I’ve had a go on a few different scopes now and I think the Dobby is the best for punch and accessibility. SkyWatcher do some cheap models that aren’t the best, but they’re affordable, portable (relatively) and will do the job. The Dobsonian is amazing because it has a very simple mount. The base spins around in a circle on the horizontal axis, the telescope is held on a hinge that moves it up and down on the vertical axis. It’s what’s known as a type of altazimuth mount. The mount design makes it easy to have a portable, easy to use, large aperture scope that is accessible in use for beginners.
The 130 number indicates the aperture size in millimetres – in this case 130 mm or close to 5 inches. The bigger the aperture the more light you can capture, and telescopes are all about getting that light. The more you can take in the clearer the object will be and the further you will be able to see. This is resolution.
With lenses, the higher the number of millimetres the less zoomed out things will be, the lower the number the more zoomed in. You might think that means you want the smallest number possible but hold your horses, there. For one, as mentioned, telescopes are a fiddly ball-ache. Using a lower magnification to find what you want, centring it in your eyepiece, then putting the higher magnification eyepiece in, then focussing, etc. makes this process a lot easier. Plus there are things for which you want the field of view. My 25 mm eyepiece fits the entire Pleiades cluster in it, my 9 mm doesn’t. If I want to look at the whole thing, I need that 25 mm. For two, your scope is going to have a highest useful magnification. Exceed that and everything is going to look dim and grainy.
Those eyepieces also come in a variety of types (I told you this was a pain in the arse), the most affordable and available of which are Plossl, Kellner and Orthoscopic. Manufacturer, optics quality and cost will all factor in but a beginner with a starter kit of three Plossl isn’t going to know the difference.
Finally, the Barlow lens is a clever little bastard of an eyepiece that acts as an attachment between the telescope and your standard eyepieces, increasing their magnification. A 2X Barlow Lens, then, would effectively double your magnification. If you got 32 mm, 12.5 mm and 6 mm eyepieces you could use your Barlow to effectively transform them into a 16 mm, 6.25 mm and 3 mm equivalent.
The article is remarkably negative, and there’s a good reason for that. Go on eBay right now, type ‘telescope’ into the box, look at every one and see how many have been “used once then chucked in the loft.” Look at reviews for them on Amazon and see how many people say “Not what I was expecting, it took ages to get it set up, then it was so fiddly and I didn’t get to see anything.” People see those ‘National Geographic’ branded telescopes for £20 in the Argos sale and think it’ll be great but it turns out they’re rubbish and have no better magnification than a decent set of binoculars. They come with garbage lenses and mirrors, crappy eyepieces and everything looks blurred.
Taking up the telescope as part of your amateur astronomy hobby is like being into juggling and deciding to set fire to the clubs you juggle with. Eventually, with practice, it will be incredibly impressive. Until you learn, though, you’ll just get burned. If you’re not willing to deal with that pain, don’t bother.
Everyone has that overly needy friend, the one who desperately clings to you because they’re so socially inept that they need the protection of another individual. I should know, he’s me. At the same time, that friend absorbs a constant stream of meteorite strikes that actually protect the other friend, but they still think you’re annoying even though they love you – in a way. That’s the Moon. I’m the Moon.
It will probably be in your first evening of celestial voyeurism that you end up having a look at our pale orb companion. I tried not to cover it early on because, well, it’s just there. You’ve seen it, dozens of times. Maybe not close up, but you know what it’s like. It’s a grey-white lump that just, sort of, sits about. It’s like that uncle you have who was chock full of potential but never made anything of himself (again, how my niece will end up seeing me…). You take it for granted, and for good reason, it never did anything! At the same time when you get deep into the backstory, you learn a lot and, like the object itself, the history is rather fascinating.
The Moon is Earth’s ‘satellite’, and that’s a piece of stuff orbiting a planet or minor planet. Strictly speaking the Moon is a natural satellite, to distinguish it from all the other pieces of space junk we have orbiting our planet that we put there. Those would be artificial satellites, some of which are quite useful, e.g. the International Space Station and communications or navigational satellites, and some of which are just astronaut shit. If they orbit us, they’re satellites.
Nobody quite knows how the Moon came to be there. We know it is made out of Earth-stuff, so it was likely once a part of our planet. It is speculated that sometime in Earth’s early history our planet was struck by another large object (estimated to be about the size of Venus) causing us to shed a huge weight that ended up orbiting us at a distance of about a quarter of a million miles. If you’ve ever had an appendectomy you are kindred spirits with mother Earth, although I hope the doctor you had was more tactful with the removal of your appendix than just throwing a huge mass at you in the blind hope it would knock your appendix into orbit.
It is tidally locked with us, so the face of the Moon that you look at is always the same one. It does not rotate relative to the Earth. So a new Moon (when you can’t see it in the sky) is what happens when the Earth is behind the Moon relative to the Sun. All the light hits the Moon’s backside and reflects back at the Sun, so we can’t see it. In this regard, the Moon is permanently ‘mooning’ the Sun. It’s always got its arse pointed at it. A full Moon happens when the Earth is between the Moon and Sun, the light that gets around the Earth reflects off the Moon making it very, very bright. Despite this the Moon has a low albedo. That doesn’t mean it was born without pigment, giving it pale skin and red eyes. Albedo is the measure of how reflective a celestial body is, given as a number between 0 and 1. 0 is entirely non-reflective whilst 1 would mean the object reflects 100% of the sun (or local star’s) light. The Moon has an average albedo of 0.12. Comparatively, Enceladus, the moon of Saturn, has an average albedo of 0.99.
One thing that stargazers will note about the Moon is that it is a bit like your loud friend at a party. It’s perfectly fine until its nonsense starts drowning out everything else. That it overcomes its low albedo to do this is very impressive. Essentially it overcomes its low albedo by two means. The first is that it is close to us; the second is that its albedo changes depending on its phase. So a full Moon reflects more light than a quarter Moon. During those periods of the month in which the Moon is prominent and bright, you should curb your expectations of what you can see. I have mentioned light pollution before and maybe didn’t give the Moon due respect in quite what a filthy, disgusting, light polluting chunk of discarded Earth-waste it can be.
That’s okay, though. Bright objects, particularly those on the opposite side of the sky to the Moon, are still visible. Thankfully, the Moon itself is also quite interesting to study.
Stare are an old person’s face long enough and you’ll see there are spots, blemishes, pits, craters all telling stories? No face is ever boring. They may be handsome, attractive or even drop-dead gorgeous, or they could be denizen fledglings of the ugly tree who fell and hit, if not every, at least multiple branches. Either way they are never boring to look at, as their face is a unique imprint of craters, crevices, lines and wrinkles. That is the Moon. Geologically, it’s on the explicit side of the internet – it’s got a lot going on.
Look at it through your binoculars and you will notice one of two things. If it is a full Moon you will notice that it is so bright as to be uncomfortable to look at, like snow on a sunny day. Well done, lesson learned, try again with a filter, or during a different phase. Do that and you will notice the Moon is awash with blemishes. It has small patches of virgin dust, contrasted with shadows, craters and dark patches. Every single one tells a story.
I don’t know any of these stories. But I can see huge craters that tell obvious stories of harsh impacts. It tells tales of meteorites that, maybe, could have struck the Earth causing history-altering implications, but not, because of our silvery friend. I see patches of grey and white, indicating difference and change. Nothing stays the same in this universe. Maybe it takes a long time to change, but it changes all the same. I see many smaller craters, the everyday stresses and strains of being a moon. Not quite as significant as the huge, deep, newer craters, but still from solid impacts, impacts that would have had a lasting effect. When you think about it, the Moon is a good metaphor.
Little wonder then that, culturally, it’s a muse and concubine. The silvery disc has sparked metaphor, whimsy and romantic notions in human beings for as long as we’ve been recording history and, likely, longer.
We have always related to her. I say ‘her’ because Western classical tradition contrasts the male Sun (Helios – Greek or Sol – Roman) with the female Moon (Selene or Luna).
If you understand the disregard for the feminine those cultures held you can understand it. Our potent Sun, giver of life and energy contrasted with the our impotent Moon, who only casts the reflected light of our solar, masculine magnificence and who, frankly, does little but make our nights better. In that regard, ancient astronomy and sexism have common ground – foolish disregard.
The Moon, an otherwise seemingly impotent presence, determines our tidal forces. She pulls our seas to-and-fro, causing a cyclic reaction that may soon hold the key to energy generation on an oil-lacking, damp, miserable and geologically inert island such as ours here in the UK. She provides regularity, a consistency, an efficacy to our planet that would otherwise be lacking if relying on the sun alone. We may not count our years by her, but she is our measure of months. She helps divide our time, so we may better schedule our agriculture, hence why we have harvest Moons. What is more, like any good woman in a relationship that takes her for granted, she will one day leave.
The Moon is moving away from Earth, at a rate of about four centimetres per year. This happens because the Moon gives the Earth the bulge! Phwoar! No, seriously, the tidal bulge that is created on our planet by its interaction with the moon is causing it. It’s a lot of astrophysics to do with tidal forces and gravity but the basic gist of it is the tidal bulge tries to pull the Moon and speed up its orbit, whilst the Moon pulls back and slows down the Earth’s rotation. The upshot of this interaction is the Moon gets further from us, and our days get longer. One day she will likely leave us entirely. The thought that our distant relatives will one day gaze up at the sky (during their – due to the gravitational effects of having no Moon – slightly longer nights) and see no Moon gives me a good reason to enjoy it whilst it can be seen.
It would take an estimated fifty billion years for the Moon to reach its maximum orbit, thus reaching the point where it could gain freedom from Earth. At that point, though, both the Moon and the Earth will be evaporate and space-ash having been consumed in the final, angry, existential whims of that fearful fireball, our sun. Not to make you worried about your Greatx108 grandchildren, but our Sun only has about another 4.5 billion years left in it. Regardless, whilst her influence may never fully diminish, she will get further away, she will grow more distant.
She can be boorish and bossy. Sometimes she stops us seeing others who we might like to see and sometimes she casts such a bright light over our lives that she seems overbearing. Like all great broken loves, though, one day humans – or the species evolved from us – will gaze at the sky and tell stories of the one who got away. The one who once so captured our imaginations that we wrote songs and poems about her, yearned for her, even made her a goddess, before we had even reached out our grubby, unworthy hands and touched her fair surface. When we did, at last, reach her, it was a magnificent crowning glory. The awakening, the coming of age, of an adolescent species once glued to its home left touching naught but itself.
One day we will pine for the love who once made a glistening romantic dream of our otherwise bland, dark nights. So when she stops you seeing other things in the sky, remember not to take her for granted. Our pale love, the pock-skinned protector, carrier of light to our otherwise black nights, sweet Selene, will not be so close to us forever.