Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Pliny The Elder and the Lack of Landspeeders

Pliny the Elder

His full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, but you can call him Pliny the Elder. He was an ancient Roman senator, military commander, lawyer, historian, scientist, writer, pin-setter, moose patroller, know-it-all, typical over-achieving busy body. Kind of like Oprah.

Presumably, he was called plain old Pliny for most of his life until his upstart namesake nephew, Pliny the Younger, came along. Had there been a third Pliny, one younger than the Younger, the Younger would have become Pliny the Middle, and the Elder would have had to be transformed to the extreme case – Pliny the Eldest, leaving the youngest to be Pliny the Youngest. Since there weren’t three Plinies we can avoid such confusing talk and simply accept the comparative nicknames, and probably forget most of this paragraph.

Pliny the Younger must have made quite an impression on the ancient Roman scene to prompt people to have to distinguish between the two Plinies. Although it has not been documented, Pliny the Younger’s prominence (or at least the threat of greatness) may have provided motivation to the Elder’s persona of being a mover and a shaker, a condition that eventually led to the Elder’s death. It turns out that Pliny the Elder had nothing to worry about, since Pliny the Younger proved himself to be a bit of a slacker and parasite.

Sure, the Younger did go on to become the governor of Bithania under the Emperor Trajan, but the Roman Empire was so huge at that time, being a governor carried as much distinction as being a homeroom monitor today. Rumor has it that his gubernatorial opponent in the election was a cheating, lying drunk who never met a bribe his denari bag couldn’t envelop. That kind of behavior might entice today’s voters, but in those days it was frowned upon, since corruption didn’t become fashionable until the Catholic church was firmly established hundreds of years later.

After Pliny the Elder’s death in 79 (not to be confused with the death of disco in 1979), the Younger took it upon himself to publish numerous writings of the Elder, enjoying every bit of the royalties and exploiting the Elder’s renown. He certainly cashed in on the Elder’s death in the press – appearing with any oracle in any forum for any price, similar to Courtney Love’s mourning of Kurt Cobain, except he never sucked on a microphone for dramatic effect. The circumstances surrounding Pliny the Elder’s death ooze of irony, which provided the Younger an engaging story from which to platform his self-promotion, proving his less than upstanding nature.

Pliny the Elder is most remembered for writing a thirty-seven volume set of encyclopedia about natural history. Oddly enough it was titled, THE NATURAL HISTORY. Above all, history defines Pliny the Elder as a scientist. Back in the early first millennium AD, the scientific technique of favor was based on observation: “If it smells like shit, looks like shit, feels like shit, plops in the toilet like shit and tastes like shit, then it’s shit!” Little did they know that it was actually Aunt Rita’s goose liver pate’. But, they couldn’t have known since they never bothered to test the validity of their observations with experimental study. This is precisely the mindset that led to the demise of the more ancient of the Plinies.

The fatal natural event that sparked Pliny the Elder’s curious eye was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 (not to be confused with the Southeast crater eruption of Mount Etna in 1979), which destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. (Remember that traveling museum exhibit of the plaster cast-like human forms who appeared to be swallowed in their tracks by the serpiginous lava? That’s how I want to go, but instead of lava, I hope it is sour cream.) At that time, Pliny was enjoying semi-retirement, spending his time writing about things like dog-headed people, people with eyes in their shoulders and super-reptilian serpents that killed bushes and exploded rocks with their breath. Either he was branching out into fantasy fiction, or he was well on his way to marble misplacement. His wife noticed a plume of smoke escaping Mount Vesuvius across the bay and alerted him (note: it is this historical event that led to the practice of all husbands throughout the history that followed to stop listening to anything their wives have to say). The naturalist in him forced him to commandeer a ship and a crew, as he had Naval connections, being commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples and all. (He was also a nighttime tollbooth operator on the Apian Way, which has nothing to do with this story, but I thought you’d like to know.) He sailed across the bay to observe the destruction up close.

As they neared the shore, Pliny must not have noticed Chicken Little hauling ass in the other direction, because the sky was definitely falling. Fatefully, he chose to proceed. Standing on the shore, making his scientific observations of the phenomenon of all hell breaking loose, Pliny the Elder failed to observe the invisible noxious fumes accompanying the fascinating lava and smoke and shards of mountain that were spewed from the volcano. Unfortunately, his respiratory system made the observation and determined accurately that you shouldn’t be breathing that stuff. He died on the shore in the arms of a couple of his slaves (serves him right for oppressing another human life). Subsequent scientists benefited from Pliny’s deadly observations, which led to the invention of placing a handkerchief over your nose while being doused by a volcano.

Pliny the Elder’s example of being an over-exuberant busy-body who meddled in the business of gods and his ultimate death because of it scared the shit out of other like-minded scientists. They decided to hide in ignorance rather than incite the ire of the gods. This, among other things, like the coinciding formation of the Catholic Church, sowed the seeds for the Dark Ages. One can safely suggest that Pliny the Elder’s shenanigans were responsible for the squandering of 500 years of potential scientific progress. Assuming that’s true, and why wouldn’t it be, one can surmise that without Pliny’s influence, we would be driving around in land speeders by now and shooting each other with lasers instead of barbaric bullets. Thanks a lot, Pliny!