Cliodynamics: Treating History As Science and Why That’s a Bad Idea

Often it has happened in the course of history and it might just repeat itself. Ironically. A beautiful idea it is, but like many before it, it might be completely wrong.

Cliodynamics is the name of this strange game, the game of detecting cycles in history and then using this data to predict the occurrence of similar events in the near future. Named after the Greek muse of history, Clio, and championed by a population dynamics expert at the University of Connecticut, Peter Turchin, Cliodynamics is fast making itself noticeable. Its claim of making future events predictable using the past events has drawn a small crop of believers and a larger group of dissidents. Fear not, it doesn’t use crystal balls; the choice of tools is limited to historical data and complex mathematics. The idea: find patterns in recurrent events and extrapolate into the future.

The endless loop

Where I stand

Personally, I belong to the dissident side. I don’t believe that it can work, but, just for the sake of convincing you, I’ll be the angel’s messenger rather than the devil’s advocate. Let me try, as hard as I can, to convince you that Cliodynamics is a genuinely scientific deal. I can always bash it up after that’s done!

The immediate question is how one can paint the whole tapestry of history – and what’s coming up – with such a broad brush! But that’s exactly what Cliodynamics is promising to cure. Right now, the reasons for collapse of large empires – pick one, say the Roman Empire – are all fuzzy. Various scenarios have been proposed. No one knows for sure. Cliodynamics wants to correct this vague outlook by introducing mathematical models backed up by solid data and then predictions ought to be made using this. History should be “predictive science”, says Peter Turchin, who was studying predator-prey problems in the wild, when he had an idea and turned his expertise in the area towards more sociological models.

On to the numbers

Turchin and a few advocates analyse the long-term trends in society using four parameters – population numbers, social structure, state strength and political instability. The dicey bit is to put proper numbers for these quantities. For abstract quantities like this, the definition is crucial, as that determines the measurement procedure. Often, however, a clear-cut definition is not available. Let’s just gloss over this point for the moment, being sure to return to it later on.

The general trend seems to be that a period of political instability, often accompanied by a period of violence, is preceded by a spell of increase in corruption and unpredictable political alliances or rise of unforeseen groups. While this is a broad trend, the challenge is to actually look into the details and come up with definitive correlations, positive or negative, between trends and the events.

But this is exactly how a historian is supposed to work – how is Turchin’s work different?

Endless Cycles of history

With the help of Sergey Nefedov of the Institute of History and Archeology, Yekaterinburg, Russia, Turchin found two independent cycles, which seem to define the course of history. One is called  the ‘Secular Cycle’ and the other one is the ‘father-and-son’ cycle.

Endless loops? (A Lorentz Attractor)

The Secular cycle lasts for a long time – sometimes as long as 200 to 300 years. Large empires grow, labour laws evolve, elitism escalates and political power transfers hands over this large timescales. Many events appear to be at play and each influences the outcome of history in their own way. Even religions can rise, fall and rise again according to the secular cycle.

The shorter cycle is the ‘father-son’ cycle, which lasts about 50-60 years, i.e. about two generations. An individual – the father – revolts against the working of the society or the class of which he is a member and the son bears the brunt of the backlash in a subdued fashion, relegated to the background by the thought that the opposing forces are too strong to fight back against.

Preserved Blood From 5300 Year Old Iceman Is World’s Oldest!

An open wound on a corpse is like a time machine – especially if the corpse is 5300 years old. Meet the most famous 5300 year old, his body preserved in as pristine a condition as this much time will allow – Oetzi. He was found in the Italian Alps, on the Oetz valley (and thus his name) in 1991 and since then has aroused considerable interest because of his well-preserved features.

Getting details

Scientists have been able to figure out that Oetzi died from a spear wound. He probably died soon after the strike and not from an infection from the wound. An axe and scattered arrow fragments lay around him. Some have even reconstructed Oetzi’s face, giving him a grizzly look of a stern, but aging hunter. Brown eyes were a figment of imagination, but they look good on him. He is the ultimate prehistoric fashion model.

Oetzi - probably

So well preserved is Oetzi that scientists have even been able to extract valuable DNA samples from whatever remains of his skin. Nothing useful could be concluded. They have also extracted mitochondrial DNA from his intestines. Mitochondria are small bodies living within cells. They contain their own DNA, apart from the nuclear DNA. Hereditary features are caused by nuclear DNA – the ‘familiar one’ – while the mitochondrial DNA remains inactive. It can only be passed down through the maternal line.

The DNA gave some tantalizing hints as to where Oetzi might have hailed from or what his biological ancestry might have been. Scientists speculate that he might be East European, but they aren’t very sure. Among other things, scientists speculate that he might have been infertile!

The preserved remains.

The blood

The latest in the Oetzi story features his blood. Blood cells degrade rather rapidly, but Oetzi even has blood preserved underneath his skin. This marks the oldest red blood cells ever recorded! Researchers at the Center for Smart Interfaces, University of Darmstadt, Germany, found that atomic force microscopy revealed minute amounts of blood in thin slices of tissue.

The RBC's as seen under an AFM. (Courtesy: BBC)

Atomic force microscopy relies on mapping out the atomic topography of a surface using a tiny atomically sharp metal tip. The concave shape of red blood cells clearly shows up (figure above)!

But something is anomalous – the fibrin levels are low. Fibrin helps blood to clot. It is found in very high quantities in fresh wounds. The fact that the blood will be preserved but not the fibrin seems far-fetched, so maybe Oetzi died slowly, due to a bleed or an infection rather than directly from a spear wound.

The dead do speak.

Slice of History: Digitized Dead Sea Scrolls Now Available Online, Thanks to Google

The most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century is now online, thanks to Google. Five of the most important Scrolls have been put up on the internet, after being digitized. As Google hopes, this will elevate the interested from being passive admirers of the scrolls to being active readers. The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls are destined to be a big hit!

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Greatest  Archaeological  Find

The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been penned by a Jewish sect, who fled Jerusalem when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and migrated through the desert. The scrolls consist of 972 documents and were discovered on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, in the Khirbet Qumran caves, presently known as West Bank.

One of the Qumran caves, where the Scrolls were found

The scrolls comprise mostly texts from the Hebrew Bible, but there are other texts, which talk about sects other than the Judaic one or one greater than it. There are also texts for the so-called Apocryphal literature, including extremely ancient Jewish works like The Book of Enoch or the Book of the Jubilees (the Lesser Genesis’). These did not find a place in the Bible as we know it now and very little is known about these apart from these scrolls. The scrolls are thus a more complete picture as to how Christianity spread and how its influence grew over Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe.

Find Scrolls here:

The five scrolls digitized and put up are the Great Isiah Scroll, the War Scroll, the Commentary on the Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll and the Community Rule Scroll. The Great Isiah Scroll is regarded by historian as the most important and extensive of all the Scrolls.

More Scrolls are due online, as the Israel Antiquities Authority, the owner of the most complete set of scrolls, are planning to digitize more scrolls from their collection and put them online, with Google’s help, of course. It says that nearly all the scrolls will be online by 2016.

The Legacy of MS-DOS [Editorial]

MS-DOS, the humble little operating system that was instrumental in establishing Microsoft’s dominance over the PC industry, turns 30 today. On July 27, 1981, Microsoft bought the rights for QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System). QDOS went on to be rebranded as MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), which then went on to dominate the market for nearly fifteen years.


Colored Beginning

MS-DOS helped Microsoft blossom into a software giant that became both feared and hated for its often aggressive and sometimes illegal tactics. However, even before Microsoft was a household name, and even before Microsoft was a monopoly, Microsoft was no stranger to sneaky and clever business strategies. In those days, CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) by Gary Kildall of Digital Research, Inc. was the dominant OS, and IBM initially wanted to use it on their forthcoming PCs. However, talks broke down due to Kildall’s refusal to sign a non-disclosure agreement (although more colorful versions of the story are often told in tech folklore).

The next company that IBM approached was Microsoft, which had little experience in developing operating systems. Microsoft decided to license QDOS written by Tim Paterson, a Seattle Computer Products employee. Sneakily enough, Microsoft initially hid its IBM deal from Seattle Computer and managed to acquire the rights for less than $100,000. QDOS, which is often alleged to be virtually identical to CP/M, would soon succeed in obliterating the latter. However, the smartest decision that Microsoft took was to convince IBM to allow it to hold on to the rights for marketing DOS. As a result, Microsoft would go on to earn hundreds of millions in revenues over the next several years.