Monthly Archives: December 2011

Crossing the Rubicon, Gordian Knot and Laconic


Dear Friends,


                As a language grows it develops its own idioms, metaphors, proverbs and other figures of speech. These add to the richness and beauty of the language. Of course, these make it difficult for computer programs to translate the language to other languages.


                I have a special interest in the idioms, metaphors and proverbs of the languages that I know: English, Hindi and Punjabi. These figures of speech tell us a lot about the culture and history of the people who speak these languages. These figures of speech are sometimes humorous, sometimes philosophical, sometimes historical but always interesting.


                Today I will tell you the history of two English phrases: “Gordian Knot” and “Crossing the Rubicon”. The first is a metaphor and the second a idiom. But since we are talking about ancient history I could not resist adding one more to the list: laconic. But the interesting thing is that when we learn about these phrases we will encounter a few more almost by accident. J


                First let’s talk about the Gordian Knot. Phrygia was a kingdom in Asia minor from 1200 BC to 700 BC. In Phrygia there was a city named Gordium. The city was named after its founder Gordius. According to a legend, at one time sometime in 8th century BC Phrygia was without a king. An oracle in the capital city of Telmissus declared that the next person coming into the city on a ox-cart would be the future king. Gordius was a poor peasant who was passing by on an ox-cart. He went into the city and was immediately made the king. The city was renamed Gordium.


                Gordius’ son was Midas. And to thank the gods for making his father a king, he dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian gods. He tied the ox-cart to a post in the palace with a very complicated knot. This knot was known as the Gordion knot. And here we have accidently come to another English phrase: Midas touch. So this phrase is associated with King Midas of Gordium who tied the Gordion knot. All this happened in the 8th century BC.


                A prophesy came to be associated with the Gordian knot. It was said that anyone who opened/solved the Gordian knot would become the king of Asia. As times changed the fortunes of Phrygia also changed. In the 4th century BC it became a mere province in the mighty Persian empire. But the Gordian knot and its legend stayed. In 333 BC Alexander reached Gordium while battling the Persian Army. He went to the palace and looked at the knot. He was told about the knot and its legend. Now Alexander wanted to be the king of Asia  and the whole world. So he wanted to solve the Gordian knot. But mathematical puzzles did not interest Alexander. He went for the “direct” approach: he took out his sword and sliced the knot in one stroke thus opening it.  


                So the phrase Gordian knot refers to a extremely difficult/almost impossible problem which can only be solved by a direct, bold stroke of intuition, courage, creativity etc.


                Now we come to the word “laconic”. When we say that someone has a “Spartan lifestyle” we mean highly regulated and disciplined. “Spartan diet” means frugal. These phrases come from the ancient Greek state of Sparta. The people there led extremely regimented and disciplined lifestyles. The Spartan society and its rules/culture are extremely interesting and worth reading. But we cannot go into that. However I must mention that while the people of Athens spent their lives in arts, education and culture, Spartans did not have time for such “soft skills”. They concentrated on preparation for war and discipline of the body. Even in their speech they were, er …Spartan. So they chose their words carefully and did not bother too much about eloquence and literary beauty.


                Sparta was known by some other names also: Lacedaemon and Laconia. Alexander’s father, Philip wanted to conquer Sparta( Laconia). So he sent a message to the Spartan king: “ If I enter Laconia, I will burn your great city”. The answer from the Spartan king was a simple and terse , “If”. So the Spartans gave a laconic reply to Philip’s threat. So the word laconic means brief and terse.


                Now, let’s talk about “crossing the Rubicon”. But for that we will have to move from Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Romans. These Romans are crazy, tap, tap, tap as Asterix would say. The Rubicon is a small river about 80 kilometres long in north Italy. In the roman empire this used to be the natural boundary that separated the rest of Europe from Italy. The ancient romans had a law which forbade any Roman general from crossing the Rubicon to come to Italy with his army. The roman general had to cross the Rubicon without his army. The aim of the rule was to make sure that no general tries to do a coup and topple the Roman republic.


                Now, we all know that Caesar fought a lot of wars in Gaul between 58 to 51 BC. All of Gaul was captured( except the little village that we know so well J) and the Gaulish  chieftain Vercingetorix threw down his weapons at Caesar’s feet( a scene captured so humourously in a few Asterix comics)


                Rome was under the control of Pompey and Pompey knew that Caesar wanted control. So there was a lot of friction between the two. Caesar wanted to go back to Rome but did not want to go back without his army as was the rule. He knew that he may be killed by Pompey’s men. So Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and triggered a civil war in Rome. This ultimately resulted in Pompey’s death and Caesar’s victory.


                So crossing the Rubicon refers to a decision which cannot be changed later or to cross a point of no return. Caesar knew that when he crossed the Rubicon  with his army that things would not be the same again and Rome would be pushed into political turmoil. So he was crossing a point of no return when he crossed the Rubicon. One more interesting phrase is associated with the incident. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he said the words : “Alea iacta est” which translates to “the die has been cast”.


                Another interesting fact. After Caesar’s death in 44 BC his name was used by Octavian who called himself Augustus Caesar. So Caesar became a title. Later, the emperors of Byzantine Empire and Ottoman empire continued to use Caesar as their title. For example in 1453 AD after the conquest of Constantinople Ottoman sultan Mahmed started calling himself “Caesar of the Roman Empire”.


                The title Caesar was even used by the Germans. The word Kaiser is derived from Caesar. Even the Russian word Tsar/Czar is derived from Caesar! In India also there used to be a title “kaisar-e-hind” during the British rule- yes, derived from Caesar!


                The study of language can be very interesting if one tries to find the historical origins of words and phrases.






Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides

go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,

instruct the planets in what orbs to run

correct old time, regulate the sun



Read my latest book, “Shadows of Lost Time”.

Nemesis and Tyche – The myth and the hypothesis


                In Greek mythology, Nemesis and Tyche were two sisters and the daughters of Zeus or Oceanus. Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution. So if you displayed hubris i.e considered yourself better than the gods, Nemesis would teach you a lesson. So Nemesis personified the revenge of fate against arrogance. Her sister Tyche was responsible for the fate of cities.  Tyche was responsible for the sudden outburst of a disease or an earthquake or a flood.

                But why am I telling you all this? But I do have the habit of telling people what they don’t want to know or don’t need to know. J Anyway, read on and I will tell you something more interesting.

                We all know that a massive extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs and gave rise to the mammalian domination of earth. Actually there was not just one extinction event in the history of earth. There have been several and scientists have found that extinction events are regular and periodic. Scientists estimate that there is an extinction event every 26 to 30 million years.

                Now, how do we explain these periodic extinction events?

                In a VERITAS posted in 2004( VERITAS: The Belt and the Cloud see, I had told you about the places where comets originate from. Short range comets ( with orbits less than 200 years) come from a place known as the Kuiper belt which is a belt of icy bodies just outside Neptune’s orbit. Long range comets( orbits sometimes in thousands of years) originate in a huge spherical cloud of bodies which lies about 1 light year from the sun. The Oort cloud surrounds the solar system. Isn’t it amazing that the Sun does not just hold planets till Neptune/Pluto. Sun’s gravity goes far beyond that. To give you an idea of the distance- Astronomical distances are measured in light years and in Astronomical units. A light year is the distance  covered by light in one year. Astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and Sun. It is written as AU. Light takes 8 minutes to travel from Sun to Earth. So 1 AU = 8 light minutes. Pluto is at a distance of 50 AU from the sun. That is about 6 light hours from the sun.  Now imagine this: The Oort cloud is 50,000 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. This is 50,000 Astronomical Units or AU. Yes, the solar system does not end with Neptune or Pluto- there are things in the solar system far beyond the 9 planets( 8 now!) that we studied in school.

                So the Oort cloud is a spherical ball of icy bodies with a radius of 1 light year with the sun at the center! Some people even estimate that the outer edge of the Oort cloud is about 100,000 AU to 200,000 AU. That is nearly 3 light years! So we have parts of the solar system nearly 3 light years away from the sun! And the interesting thing is that the nearest star to the Sun is Alpha Centauri and that is 4 light years away.

                The proposal to explain the periodic ( 26 million year) extinction cycle on Earth is that every 26 million years, something perturbs some objects in the Oort cloud and hurls them towards the earth at a HUGE speed. These objects, which may become  long range comets later change the seasons when they pass the earth and cause widespread extinction of the lifeforms that exist on earth at that time. Some may even hit the earth causing widespread damage. By the way, lots of comets have originated in the Oort cloud. Halley’s comet was once a Oort cloud object but now has an elliptical orbit with a period of 76 years.

                Okay, so to come back to the theory: once every 26 million years something disturbs a Oort cloud object hurling it towards the earth causing extinction events. But what? There are many hypothesis. In this VERITAS we will talk about two of them: Nemesis and Tyche.

                Scientists have postulated that there is a brown dwarf star just beyond the Oort cloud and revolves around the sun in a highly elliptical orbit. Its orbital period around the sun is 26 million years or so. When it comes near the Oort cloud, after every 26 million years, it disturbs the Oort cloud bodies and sends them hurling through space towards the sun. Some of these bodies hit the earth causing a huge amount of dust in the air, climate change and therefore mass extinctions. We know that dinosaur extinctions have been caused by such a body falling on the earth. The name of this hypothetical star is Nemesis. A brown dwarf star is a star that is not large enough to sustain nuclear fusion. So it does not shine. It is therefore practically invisible. If this is true than the Sun and Nemesis form a binary star pair- Binary stars are pretty common in the universe.

                Some other scientists found that all mass extinctions have been caused by objects that have come from the same point in the sky- and that point lies in the orbital plane of the planets. Let me explain. All planets and the sun lie on a single plane. So if I were to take a huge sheet of paper and pass it through the sun and mercury, that sheet of paper will pass through all the other planets also. There are no planets “above” or “below” the planetary orbital plane( Pluto was an exception but now it has been plutoed. See VERITAS: Pluto has been plutoed, 20 January 2010

                So if scientists find that the objects causing mass extinctions come from a point in the orbital plane of planets far away in the Oort cloud, what could that imply? Yes, scientists believe that there may be a planet revolving around the sun with an orbit so huge that it crosses the Oort cloud! And this planet dislodges objects in the Oort cloud and they hit the earth at high speeds causing mass extinctions every 26 million years or so. The name that scientists have given this hypothetical planet is Tyche.

                So Nemesis and Tyche are the names of hypothetical objects( one star and one planet) which explain the periodic mass extinctions on earth. Scientists are trying real hard to confirm or deny their existence. This may take several years.

                Our earth is a tiny spec of nothingness and our lives are even more tiny and insignificant. Yet, we go about our lives with the seriousness that is almost ridiculous and laughable! The only useful thing we can do in our lives is to use this short insignificant period of consciousness to admire the infinite beauty and mystery that surrounds us.

                Here is a nice little poem by Jane Draper:


 Stars have ways that I do not know,

   Enormity that checks my thought,

   Yet on the loom of their fine glow

   The fabric of my dreams is wrought.


   I look into the stars, and one

  After one, convictions die,

   While more than I have lost is spun

   Delicately across the sky.


    I look into the stars, and all

    The fuming purposes life gives

    Pass, like mists of evening fall,

    And all life never has been, lives.






Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides

go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,

instruct the planets in what orbs to run

correct old time, regulate the sun