Wednesday, 3 December 2008

North of the Border, A visit to Scotland


Took a trip up to Edinburgh over the holiday (Thanksgiving in America, but it was St. Andrews day in Scotland) and had a wonderful time. Must have walked past the Sheraton five times before I noticed that they had huge models of the Neolithic Stone balls that resemble the Platonic Solids. In the picture above I am standing by one that shows the symmetry of the dodecahedron, and others show all the Platonic solids, as well as some other polyhedral models. The actual balls range from two to eight inches in diameter.

Historians usually date the knowledge of all five Platonic solids no earlier than about 500 BC, but the dates of man's discovery (creation) of the Platonic solids is made more complicated by the existance of these neolithic Scottish balls (the real ones, not the ones at the Sheraton) that have been unearthed dating back to about 2000 BC. I was made aware of these a few years ago by discussions on the Historia Matematica discussion group, and quote here from a posting of Dick Tahta:

"On neolithic carved stone balls: There are nearly 400 of these objects found in various sites in Scotland and now in various museums and private collections. They include various regular and semi-regular solids, alternatively they can be seen as arrangements of knobs - from 3 to 10 and then various numbers up to 160! Some of them are decorated, notably the tetrahedral Towie stone. now in the Edinburgh museum (which stocks an excellent coloured postcard). . I have a baked clay model of this stone, bought from a shop in Avebury, Wiltshire."

"J Frazer is quoted as taking the grooves to be meant for thongs so that the balls could be hurled through the air "uttering oracles in a whistling voice which a wizard was able to interpret". I have been unable to trace this quotation, and the author was unable to help me at the time I inquired. The Ashmolean museum, Oxford, has a number of balls, kept in a drawer - I have handled these and they are certainly as remarkable as Keith Critchlow has pointed out. "These neolithic objects display the regular mathematical symmetries normally associated with the Platonic solids, yet appear to be at least a thousand years before the time of either Pythagoras or Plato." (K Critchlow, Time stands still, London - Gordon Fraser, 1979, p133 - this book has some splendid photos of various stone balls.)"


There have been various attempts to guess at what the balls might have beenmade for. The nineteenth century archeologists who excavated them thought they might be weapons - whether as pike heads, or hurled from slings, or used in games or perhaps for divination. It seems that the balls were never found in personal graves, so it has been suggested they were a sort of ceremonial conch, a prized possession of the tribe. Contemporary archeologists tend to be more cautious. According to Dorothy Marshall, "there is so little hard fact to be extracted from the evidence available about the carved stone balls that postulation as to their evolution and use if very difficult." ( D Marshall, Carved stone balls, Proc Soc Antiq Scotland, 108 (1976-7) 40-72 - this is the most up-to-date and authoritative account. Some previous papers in the same journal are to be found in 11 (1874-6) 29-62 and 48 (1913-4) 407-20.)"

Edinburgh is also home to several campuses of the Napier University, one of which includes the home of the famous inventor of the logarithm, John Napie, Merchiston Tower, at Napier University, just off hwy 702 (Morningside drive) two miles or so from downtown Edinburgh...
. Nearby on Morningside Drive is the Eric Liddell Center, a living memorial to Eric Liddell, the rugby star and first Scottish Olympic gold-medalist (you remember, "Chariots of Fire!") which has been serving the local and wider Edinburgh community for more than twenty five years. (Liddell died in 1945 in China just before the end of the war). In an August 8, 2008 poll in The Scotsman newspaper Eric Liddell was voted as the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. Sometimes good guys finish first.

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