Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Who Dunnit?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Archeology, Nature of Science, Nature, Biodiversity

Ed Hessler.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improabable, must be the truth.--Sherlock Holmes

"Psssst, I didn't do it. I might as well have said, Hsssst, I didn't do it." You say, "Well, that is what they all say."

In an essay in I Witness History in Aramco World, ancient history professor at the University of Houston, Frank L. Holt, speaks and argues for an accused who cannot speak. "It's low time I set the record crooked," the accused says.

"You see, I, the Egyptian asp, Naja naje (Egyptian cobra), am the victim of overwrought imaginations. I did not kill Cleopatra. Not in Shakespeare's way or any other."

So what is the evidence for and against and how good is it one way or the other in reaching a verdict on the cause of Cleopatra's death? This essay were it a book, at least for me is a real "page turner." O.K. a "paragraph turner." I couldn't resist it. It is also beautifully written with verve, gusto and a historian's knowledge. In addition the essay is beautifully and lavishly illustrated by Norman MacDonald.

Hunt opens with some comments on why snakes are generally despised and then goes on with a quick review of snakes in several cultures (noble roles), asps in high culture and low culture in which much embroidery has been sewn, facts about the geopolitics of Cleopatra's time, facts about asps and poison strength, details about venom suckers (the selection process which one can describe as "hazardous," at best), hearsay and gossip, major players in this drama, other than Cleopatra and the asp-- CaesarOctavian, Arsinoe IV, opportunity, means and motive for two suspects before reaching a reasoned conclusion. .

The conclusion Holt reaches is based on rational separation of speculation and hearsay from certain facts which support but don't or can they "prove" the case. The method is very much in the spirit of Nobel Prize awardee (1946) physicist Percy Bridgman who wrote in his book Reflections of a Physicist (1955). "The scientific method, as far as it is a methodgy, is nothing more than doing one's damnedest with one's mind, no holds barred." It is a definition I still like.

Holt's essay is a nice example of the use of forensics in history as well as reasoning, even though none of us were there.You may disagree with the conclusion, weighting the evidence presented differently. I think the Naje is innocent.

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