Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Fran...
Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Francisco, on tour promoting the 34th Discworld novel, “Thud!”, in a book signing organized by Booksmith. This was before the 1 1/2 hour chat – Pratchett arrived early and, with grudging efficiency, settled down to sign some books beforehand to get some of that out of the way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an apocryphal story of an eminent lecturer (some say Bertrand Russell) giving a lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the centre of the Home Galaxy, the Milky Way, when someone objects and states that the earth is a flat surface, balanced on the back or a turtle.

The lecturer questions what it is that the turtle is standing on, and the objector states that the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle. The lecturer asks what the second turtle is standing and gets the answer “It’s turtles all the way down“.

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It’s always struck me that the objector’s argument is paralleled by the lecturer’s own argument. The moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the Home Galaxy, the Home Galaxy orbits the Local Cluster of galaxies. It’s orbits all the way down.

Of course the lecturer’s world view is a lot more sensible than the objector’s world view, wouldn’t you say? Well a confirmed sceptic would be dubious about both claims, but the man in the street assuming he wasn’t by chance a turtle believer would probably side with the lecturer.

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the current view of the universe as espoused by the lecturer is fairly recent in historical terms. Sir Isaac Newton and his near contemporaries (both in Britain and elsewhere) cemented the physical view of the world as the paramount paradigm. Again it’s worth noting that Sir Isaac and co did not completely ditch the mystical view of the world. He was very interested in alchemy for example, though this could be considered to be a rational belief at a time when the field of chemistry was still relatively immature.

Sir Terry Pratchett took the turtle theory and ran with it in the Discworld series of books. What would life be like on a world shaped like a disc, carried by four elephants, on the back of a gigantic turtle? This is the basic premise of Pratchett’s books, which I enjoy immensely.

P Elephant
P Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, sort of, such a world cannot be ruled by the laws of physics, so it is ruled by the laws of magic, which seem parallel the physical laws in some ways. Pratchett’s Discworld clockwork is run by magic, not by physics. Indeed one of the characters muses on the magical laws and wonder whether or not there might be “another way”.

Threading the Discworld books and the Discworld universe are certain key characters, the first of whom is the failed wizard and professional coward Rincewind, from the first Discworld book “The Colour of Magic”. Rincewind’s quest for a quiet life is forever dashed by circumstances which often result in Rincewind escaping from some life-threatening situation or other by the skin of his teeth.

Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The ...
Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rincewind’s case is watched over by Death, who describes himself as an “anthropomorphical manifestion” and who looks after a room full of “life-timers”, huge hour glasses containing the sands of a person’s existence. When the sand runs out, Death appears to the person and with a sweep of his scythe cuts the person’s lifeline. What happens then varies, but usually the person or soul travels over a dark plain.

Rincewind’s lifetimer apparently looks as though it was constructed by a glass blower with a bad case of the hiccoughs, and Death has ceased to wonder when Rincewind will die, but merely retains a “professional interest” in Rincewind’s exploits.

Death (Discworld)
Death (Discworld) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thousand words cannot do justice to the inventiveness of Pratchett’s Diskworld. It is peopled by trolls, dwarves, werewolves, vampires, heroes (professionals of course), wizards, witches, talking dogs, a smell with its own personality, druids, priests, gods and godesses and many many other characters.

Over the series of books the geography of the Diskworld as are some of its physical (or maybe that should be “magical”) properties. The geography is centred socially in the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, and physically by the Hub Mountains (home of the Ice Giants and “Dunmanifestin”, the home of the rather down market major gods of Diskworld).

The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last ...
The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last Hero , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is, as can be seen from the above to be a complex one, interleaving and referencing many well-known myths and legends which Pratchett weaves into enthralling parodies of the originals.

For example, the heroes that Rincewind and others encounter are mostly bumptious self righteous individuals who seem to possess very little in the way of intellect. They win because they are heroes and heroes always win in the end, not because they are shrewd campaigners.

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An exception to this model of hero is Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde. These ancient heroes are shrewd and survive because they have decades of experience in not dying. The overcome a bunch of martial arts experts by using there experience by not being there when the martial arts experts makes a move.

Pratchett references all sort of myths, legends and stories and often delves deep into the roots of the myth. He traces the roots of the “Father Christmas” myth in the book “Hogfather” back to one bloody version of the possible roots of the myth.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...
Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His coven of witches who appear in several books harken back to Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth and also to other witch myths, such as (supposed) pagan myth of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Shakespeare of course, like Pratchett is tapping into earlier myths.

The adoption of the alternate reality scenario allows Pratchett to tap into all these myths and legends and to mix and match them with similar myths and legends and put them up against present day society. There is for example the Last Continent of XXXX, obviously a reference to current day Australia, the social problems of immigration, typified by the Dwarves who are mild mannered at home, but who turn into drinking, carousing menaces singing about gold when they immigrate to Ankh-Morpork.

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Pratchett’s strength were to be able to draw on all these myths and legends and to build engaging stories around them. Even if you don’t know the legend, you can enjoy the characters and the story, and recognise the parallels with the real world.

You can enjoy the stories of the three witches turning the tables on card sharks who try to take advantage of three little old ladies, for example. Or the invention of surfing by the Burser of the Unseen University when the faculty find themselves offshore of the Last Continent (aka XXXX). Or sympathise with Death when he becomes disenchanted with his role as an “anthropomorphic manifestation” and takes a holiday.

Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen Unive...
Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen University Diary 1998 , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You do all this while enjoying the marvellous stories. RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. You will be sorely missed.


"Father! Father! / Tell me what ails thee...
“Father! Father! / Tell me what ails thee? / With dismay thou art filling thy child!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, wow, drat and other words of dismay. I haven’t thought of a topic for this week and it is time to write my post. Time to get started.

OK, people seem to like classifying things. This can be so that they can find one item in a large collection of things, or it may be simply a means of bolstering prejudices that they might have. Or any of a myriad number of other reasons.

Garbage Can
Garbage Can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When faced with a profusion of things, the human impulse is to classify them. One of the most famous classification systems is that of Carl Linnaeus, whose classification system is used for the not so trivial task of classifying all living things. His system, with modifications is still the basis for biological classification of all organisms.

Digitally improved version of Alexander Roslin...
Digitally improved version of Alexander Roslin’s painting of Carl von Linné. This particular version has had dust and missing specs of paint deleted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Linnaeus started his classification, it is likely that partial schemes would likely have been in place to classify small groups of organisms, but Linnaeus extended this to all organisms, in an organised way. When someone states that mankind’s scientific name is “Homo Sapiens”, he or she is using the Linnaeus system, at least partially.

“Homo” represents mankind’s Genus, and “Sapiens” is mankind’s  Species, but the species is merely a leaf on the classification tree, which is rooted in the Animalia Kingdom, and descends through Phylum, Class, Order, Family, and Tribe, (which I’m not going to list here) and finally to the Genus and Species.

Darwin's tree of life
Darwin’s tree of life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Linnaeus’ system is still in use today, but the emphasis has changed somewhat. When he was doing his work, the classification was based on appearance, and while that is often a good guide to an organism’s place in nature, emphasis has now shifted to the genetic make up of organisms to determine their correct classification.

Agapornis phylogeny
Agapornis phylogeny (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has sometimes resulted in whole chunks of the classification tree being moved from one branch to another as knowledge of the genetics of the organisms has come to light. It is obvious that if two organisms have similar genetic make ups, then they must be closely related. Also, it implies that they almost certainly have a common ancestor, and such an ancestor is also fitted into the tree of life and given a species name.

Horned Dinosaur Phylogeny
Horned Dinosaur Phylogeny (Photo credit: Scott Wurzel)

This adds a time dimension to the genetic tree, turning it from a static representation of living organisms into a dynamic picture of all life over all time. The tree of life is evolving.

Another great classification system is the Dewey Decimal Classification system, a proprietary library classification system used to classify books. Every book in a library is assigned a number, which in most cases would not be unique. The number consists of two parts separated by a period (‘.’). Most library users would be aware of the system, and will have used it to locate books.

Spine Books Label show Call Number for Dewey D...
Spine Books Label show Call Number for Dewey Decimal Classification. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the system can classify books in great detail, merely by extending the number after the period to many decimal points, most libraries classify their books in much less detail, using only two or three digits as a suffix. This results in groups of books receiving the same number, with the books in a group sharing a common topic, while differing in detail.

get to know the dewey decimal system
get to know the dewey decimal system (Photo credit: susannaryan)

For instance a particular number may be assigned by the library whose topic might be the geography of the country of Bolivia. (The actual number is 918.4). The library might have only one or two books on the subject of the country of Bolivia, so that number is sufficient to locate any of them.

In the country of Bolivia itself, however, there will almost certainly be many more books on the topic and the Dewey Decimal Classification almost certainly contains more detailed classification numbers which would have to be used in Bolivia libraries to classify the geography books. (I’ve not checked this “factoid” but it is probably true).

Shelf of Books on South America
Shelf of Books on South America (Photo credit: pkdon50)

So the Dewey Decimal Classification system can be hair-splittingly  accurate or broadly general in its application and this flexibility is ideal for libraries. Sometime libraries use a sort of hybrid system, probably driven by the need for a sub-classification where some books have been already more generally classified, where some books are classified as “something.12” and other books are classified as “something.123”. In most cases this inconsistency doesn’t matter.

Topographic map of Bolivia. Created with GMT f...
Topographic map of Bolivia. Created with GMT from public domain GLOBE data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just realised on writing that, that it may not be inconsistency at all. Instead the “something.123” books may be more specific than the “something.12” books, which would therefore be more general.

An obvious difficulty with the Dewey Decimal Classification system is that there is no cross-reference possible. In the Bolivia example, a book may cover the topic of the geographic causes of distribution of various related Bolivian species of some organism or other. Is this to be classified as biology and be assigned to a class in the 500s (Pure Science), or should it be classified as geography and assigned to a class in the 900s?

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nowadays one can do a computer search and come up with a bunch of numbers that fit the topic that is being researched. In the days before computers there were card-based “Topic Catalogs” which would also provide the searcher with a bunch of numbers. The trouble is, many searches would result in multiple numbers, either as a result of a card search or a computer search.  One would then have to go to several locations to decide if the required topic was covered by this Dewey Decimal Classification number or one of the others. I make it sound bad, but really, it wasn’t, and the issue is more a user confusion about what was covered by each topic in the system rather than an issue with the system itself.

Banner for Wikipedia:WikiProject Lists of topics
Banner for Wikipedia:WikiProject Lists of topics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A computer search (on Google for example) will provide a list of possible references to a search term, but as anyone has used a computer search is aware, a search term can refer to many topics. A search for the word Socrates gave me a list including a Wikipedia article on the philosopher himself, a list of quotes taken from his work, a biography of the philosopher and a site where his philosophies could be discussed. And that is just the first four items out of an estimated 6 million or so.

Google (Photo credit: warrantedarrest)

Classification of things seems to be a trait of humans. I think that we classify things to simplify things for ourselves, to make it easy to identify threats and possibilities. As such, it is probably an inherited trait possessed by at least the more developed organisms on the planet. However classification can add complexity if one is searching for something, so it is something of a trade off.

google_logo (Photo credit: keso)