Garlic and magnetism:
I may have heard of it before but have now heard (Peter Pesic What the Romans Really Knew SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6117 January 18, 2013 reviewing What Did the Romans Know? by Daryn Lehoux, University of Chicago Press 2012) that at least some Romans thought that garlic annulled the effect of magnets.  This was presented in the context of “subtly competing concepts of truth, consistency, correspondence and justifiability.”  Pesic ponders how the Romans could have got it wrong, given how easy it was to disprove and how practical they were.  How could I resist?  “Subtly competing concepts.”  I am at true sucker for such things.  So I put it to the test.  I pulled a magnet off the refrigerator, slathered the appliance with a nice layer of chopped garlic in oil and put the magnet back in place.  Sure enough.  The effect was canceled.  The garlic stuck handily enough but the magnet, now a fraction of an inch from the metal, was powerless.

I’m sure chopped apple would have worked just as well.  It has something to do with shape and strength of the magnetic field and the receptivity of the refrigerator.  We used to call the magnetic field of a magnet the “flux” or flow.  Well the book uses “effluvia,” which we use to mean odor but which also comes from the word for flow.  That’s what the Romans were apparently thinking about.  Well if, as is suggested, like attracts like and if the invisible put powerful “flow” from the garlic is not compatible with the “flow” from the magnet, then nothing is.  Garlic, apples, you name it and if enough gets between the magnet and the metal, the magnet does not draw the metal.

At least that’s one way of thinking about it.  I tend to bend over backwards to give a writer the benefit of the doubt, particularly if the writer has been dead for thousands of years and finds coming by to correct me difficult. 

Mine is not the only attitude.  There is the story of King Canute, who ordered the sea to stop rising with the tide.  The king got a bit wet.  The usual version of the story is as a cautionary tale against the arrogance of power; and I guess we could use more caution from those parts.  Can you think of something the powerful have attempted in recent years that hasn’t turned out so hot?

According to the first document spinning the yarn, the king (and apparently he was a very effective monarch) was making a point to his flatterers.  He was proving that only God could do something like turn the tide.  It was an act of piety.  Well piety is usually not a bad thing to demonstrate for practical purposes, and indeed that may have been the intent, assuming that anything like the event actually occurred.

But there is another issue.  Around about that time the Dutch were busily putting up dikes to turn back the tide in their part of the world.  Obviously a dike may be a wonderful thing for protecting low lying fertile land from the sea, but a piece of a dike doesn’t do very much.  If there are multiple stake holders, people who own land along the shore, it really will work best if they share in a single construction project rather than have each owner do it his own way in his own time.  Maybe the courtiers were asking the king to take the responsibility of organizing the effort.  He made the grand and pious gesture to show he could not order the sea around because he missed the point.  But Canute is thought to have been a capable man so maybe he went down and looked at the site and decided that the terrain really wasn’t suitable.  I guess he would have been right.  The English have done plenty to try to cope with the sea, particularly in East Anglia, an area with a lot of Dutch influence.  (My source is the novel The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers)  But they have not pursued it like the Dutch, presumably because it wasn’t a good idea. 

To get back to the Romans, maybe we can be a little less charitable.  Maybe they never put the idea to the test at all.  Or maybe they tested it as I did but didn’t have a go at the apples.  That is the fatal flaw of the uncontrolled experiment. 

And that has never gone out of style.  Again and again I hear, “Ah yes.  Better education and more wealth are the things that bring the birth rate down.  We can have all the babies we want.  We reduced the birth rate by rational choice.  We shall raise it by rational choice when we are good and ready.”  Really?  Then why do we have immigrants.  Why are people encouraging immigration into Europe so as to have enough people to keep the place running.  How much crisis to you want?

And indeed the control has been done.  The Danish study I refer to in the December 21 essay specifically addressed the issue.  Once you account for things that affect consanguinity education and income have absolutely no effect whatsoever on birth rate. 

Maybe it doesn’t put the Romans in good company, but it gives them a lot of company.

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