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  • The Science of Middle-earth
  • Amy Amendt-Raduege
The Science of Middle-earth, by Henry Gee . Foreword by David Brin . Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2004. 255 pp. $14.00 (trade paperback) ISBN 1593600232.

By now, it should come as no particular surprise to anyone that the genres of science fiction and fantasy have a strong following in the scientific community. The Science of Middle-earth marks the latest in a recent spate of publishing to use a popular story as a springboard to advance the public discussion of science. As a zoologist and author of several books on vertebrate evolution, and an editor of Nature, Gee uses his considerable store of scientific knowledge in his approach to Middle-earth. His premise is that this place is presented as an intact world and therefore subject to the same scientific scrutiny as any other ecosystem. He blends scientific knowledge with theory and imagination to extrapolate what could be: how Fëanor might have used materials now only conjectured to exist to grow the palantíri, what physiological traits would be necessary for dragons to fly, and how string theory might explain something of how the Ring functions. Such extrapolations, of course, lie at the very heart of science–and likewise at the heart of fantasy. Playing upon this intrinsic connection, the author applies a number of scientific disciplines to explain and explore the wonders of Middle-earth.

The book is laid out as a collection of loosely connected essays applying scientific principles to the phenomena of Middle-earth, framed by a gentle but firm rebuke of the literary establishment on the one hand and the scientific community on the other. There are no overt section headings, but the essays generally fall into three broad groups: the relation between Tolkien and science, the creatures of Middle-earth, and, finally, the science of Middle-earth itself.

The first five chapters deal primarily with the interaction between Tolkien and science, a deliberately ambiguous phrase that refers both to Tolkien's relationship with the science of his day and his subsequent effect on the science of the present day. Using evidence from Tolkien's own writings, the first five chapters establish that Tolkien was not anti-science, but instead worried about the misapplication of science—a concern not alien to the scientific community. Certainly he was familiar with most of the prevailing scientific theories of his day. Given that Tolkien was a philologist, arguably the most scientific branch of linguistics, such a connection seems logical. The connection is further deepened when Tolkien's impact on modern science is discussed—most notably in the area of nomenclature, a development that surely would have delighted Tolkien.

The second section deals primarily with the evolutionary questions raised by the more mythical creatures of Middle-earth: the orcs, ents, balrogs, and dragons. Rather than dismissing these creatures as mere [End Page 194] fantasy, the author exercises his considerable knowledge of evolutionary biology to speculate on what physiological and biomechanical adaptations would be necessary for such creatures to exist, and in what ways the laws of physics would constrain them. Two chapters discuss the problems of orkish origins and reproduction, one discusses the botanical diversity of Middle-earth and the impact of deforestation on the ents, and another weighs the scientific evidence to conclude that balrogs probably do not have wings. These chapters are necessarily more speculative than those preceding them, and they tend to concentrate rather more on the science than on Middle-earth per se.

The last ten chapters, the third and final section of the book, delve into the actual science of Middle-earth, the way the peoples of Middle-earth might have used and understood science. For the most part, the chapters fluctuate between Elvish physiology and Elvish technology, with one chapter dealing with the megafauna of Middle-earth. In a highly innovative approach, Gee applies the Third Law of Arthur C. Clarke—"any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"—to contend that the Elves possessed scientific knowledge well beyond our own. The author makes a convincing argument that Elvish technology is difficult to see because, unlike ours, it does not...


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