Oct 11 2012 1:00pm

Gandalf Was Wrong: Middle-earth Needs Science

Saruman was for science and better understanding of the universe, even if he was evil

“I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

–Gandalf, recounting his confrontation with Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring

Even as a kid, reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at the golden age of twelve or so, Gandalf’s response to Saruman never sat well with me. Splitting white light into its component colors is awesome, and taking things apart is the best way to learn how they work. Knowing how things work is the first step toward making them work better, a process that leads to the technologies that make modern life comfortable enough to, among other things, provide Oxford dons with enough free time to construct elaborate fantasy universes.

With an attitude like that, it was probably inevitable that I would grow up to be a scientist. And as I grew up to become a physicist working with atoms and lasers, I’ve only become more convinced that Gandalf is wrong. Splitting light isn’t a mistake, it’s the first step on the path toward our modern understanding of the universe.


Splitting Light and the Birth of Quantum Physics

The science of splitting light into its component colors is called spectroscopy, which began in earnest in the mid-1800’s with the discovery that different chemical elements emitted different colors of light. The best-known examples are the characteristic red-orange glow of neon lights and the yellow-orange of sodium vapor streetlights, but every element emits its own unique set of wavelengths of light. These characteristic colors are called “spectral lines” because they usually appear as bright stripes in the spread-out spectrum of light from some source. They can be used to identify the composition of hot objects, and even discover new elements: in 1868 helium was first detected as an unexplained line in the spectrum of the Sun.

These spectral lines are undeniably useful, but scientists did not at first understand why atoms emit some wavelengths but not others. This problem was one of the great mysteries facing physics in the late 1800’s. An essential clue to the origin of spectral lines was provided by German schoolteacher Johann Balmer in 1885, who found a simple mathematical formula that described the wavelengths of the lines in hydrogen’s exceptionally simple visible spectrum. Johannes Rydberg expanded Balmer’s formula to encompass the ultraviolet and infrared lines in hydrogen just a few years later. The physics underlying the formulae, though, remained mysterious for the next three decades.

The first successful model of the physics underlying the Rydberg formula came from the Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1913. Bohr’s model of hydrogen builds on a picture of the atom introduced by Ernest Rutherford in 1911, which is the progenitor of the cartoon atom everybody learns about in elementary school, with electrons orbiting a positively charged nucleus. Rutherford’s model had a major flaw, however: according to the known physics of electricity and magnetism, an orbiting electron should spray radiation outward in all directions, at a wide range of wavelengths, thereby losing energy, and spiraling inward to crash into the nucleus. Classical physics does not allow stable solar-system-like atoms, or allow them to produce light at well-defined frequencies.

In order to match the Rydberg formula, Bohr made a radical leap: he proposed that, in defiance of everything known about classical physics, an electron circling the nucleus of an atom in certain special orbits would not emit any light. In Bohr’s model, atoms emit light only when they move between these “allowed states,” and the color of the emitted light depends on the difference between the energies of the initial and final states.

Bohr’s model successfully explains the spectrum of hydrogen, but his rule for determining the special allowed orbits was completely arbitrary and demanded a deeper explanation. In 1924, a French Ph.D. student named Louis de Broglie realized that he could justify Bohr’s model by saying that electrons have wave-like properties: Bohr’s special orbits were simply those whose circumference was an integer times the wavelength of an orbiting electron. De Broglie’s prediction was just as radical as Bohr’s – his professors had no idea what to make of it at first, and they were reluctant to accept it until Einstein proclaimed it brilliant. Shocking though it was, de Broglie’s idea of matter waves was confirmed experimentally a few years later when physicists directly observed electrons behaving like waves. As a result, the new science of quantum mechanics was launched.

The modern theory of quantum mechanics is far more complicated than the simple models of Bohr and de Broglie (and much stranger), but it works brilliantly, correctly predicting the wavelengths of light emitted by hydrogen to some 14 decimal places. Quantum physics underlies essentially all modern technology: we can make computer chips because we understand the quantum nature of electrons and can manipulate their behavior inside materials like silicon. We can make the lasers that are crucial to fiber-optic telecommunications because we understand the quantum nature of light, and its interaction with atoms. The modern internet and all its revolutionary effects would be impossible without quantum physics, and while you might question the amount of wisdom to be found on the internet, the path to it unquestionably begins with the splitting of light.


Splitting Light, Timekeeping, and Navigation

Quantum mechanics and precision spectroscopy also allow us to measure time to astonishing precision. When atoms emit light, the oscillation frequency of that light is determined by the energy separation between two allowed states in the atom. That difference is determined by quantum mechanics, and is the same for every atom of that element. The light’s oscillation can therefore be treated as the “ticking” for a very precise clock, with atoms serving as perfect reference sources to verify that the frequency is correct.

The modern definition of time is thus based on spectroscopy: one second is defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the radiation emitted by cesium-133 atoms moving between two specific energy levels. Modern cesium atomic clocks can measure this to astonishing precision: the cesium fountain clock at the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K. uses spectroscopy to match the cesium frequency so precisely that it would take more than 130 million years to lose one second. And experimental clocks based on aluminum ions, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, are even more accurate, taking a few billion years to lose one second.

Such fantastic timing accuracy allows physicists to directly measure the predictions of Einstein’s theory of relativity on human scales. Special relativity tells us that moving clocks “tick” at a rate that is slower than an identical stationary clock, while general relativity tells us that a clock at high altitude will tick faster than an identical clock at sea level. These predictions have been verified by atomic clocks in jet planes, but the aluminum-ion clocks are so precise they can see a moving clock run slow at speeds as low as 4 m/s (about 9mph), and see a higher clock run fast due to a change of just 33cm (about a foot).

Precision timekeeping is also essential for modern navigation. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of cesium atomic clocks in satellites orbiting the Earth. Each satellite broadcasts the time according to its clock, and a GPS receiver in your car or cell phone picks up radio signals from several satellites. Measuring the difference between the arrival times for signals from different satellites allows a computer to calculate the distance from each satellite to your receiver; knowing the distance to three satellites specifies your position on the surface of the Earth to within a few meters. GPS may not be necessary to walk the path of wisdom, but it can be essential for keeping you on the path to home, and it all begins with the splitting of light.


Splitting Light and the Fate of the Universe

Finally, separating light into different colors is also the first step toward our modern understanding of the origin, history, and eventual fate of the universe. Not only does the light emitted by distant stars tell us their composition, through the spectral lines emitted by the different elements, it also tells us their velocity through the Doppler effect. This is a shift in the frequency of waves emitted by a moving source, and the most familiar example is the characteristic eeeeeee-ooowwwww sound of a fast moving car going by. As the car approaches, the sound waves from its engine Doppler shift up in pitch (higher frequencies,  shorter wavelengths), and as it recedes, they Doppler shift down in pitch (lower frequencies, longer wavelengths).

The same shift takes place with light: light from approaching objects shifts toward the blue end of the visible spectrum, and light from receding objects shifts toward the red. The larger the shift, the faster the object is moving: therefore, astronomers can tell how fast and which way a distant star is moving by comparing its spectral lines to the same lines from a source on Earth.

In the late 1920’s, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble measured the spectrum of light emitted by 46 different galaxies. Nearly all of them showed spectral lines shifted to the red, indicating that they were moving away from us. Furthermore, the more distant galaxies had larger shifts, indicating that they were moving away faster. The galaxies’ speed was proportional to distance, so a galaxy that was twice as distant was moving twice as fast. This relationship, now known as “Hubble’s Law,” has been confirmed by numerous other observations.

Hubble’s result, unexpected at the time, is explained very naturally by a model in which the universe is expanding, now known as the “Big Bang” model (a name given in scorn but adopted with pride). According to our best understanding, the universe began as a single, very hot, extremely dense point around 13.7 billion years ago, and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Further support for this model was again provided by measuring the colors of light, this time the “cosmic microwave background” radiation left over from a time about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. In the 1940’s, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman predicted that this leftover radiation would have the same distribution of wavelengths as the spectrum of light emitted by an object at 5 kelvin (five degrees above absolute zero). When this background radiation was detected by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965, its temperature was 2.7 K. The cosmic microwave background is one of the most important bits of evidence for the Big Bang, and measuring the subtle variations in its spectrum provides our very best information about the conditions of the early universe.

Spectroscopy also allows us to determine the eventual fate of the universe. In the late 1990’s, astronomers extended Hubble’s law to vastly greater distances by using supernovae to accurately determine the distance to galaxies formed only a few billion years after the Big Bang. They expected the spectra of these galaxies to show that the expansion was slowing down over time, due to the force of gravity pulling galaxies back together. Instead they found the opposite: the expansion of the universe is accelerating. A mysterious substance known as “dark energy” is pushing the universe outwards, causing it to expand faster and faster as time goes on. The expansion will continue forever, with the universe becoming infinitely large and increasingly empty. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for the discovery of the accelerating expansion.

Numerous questions remain to be answered—what is the exact nature of the dark energy? what caused the Big Bang?—but the first step on the path to understanding where we came from and where we’re going involves the splitting of light.

Far from being a step off the path of wisdom, then, the splitting of light is the essential first step toward modern physics. While this might not have held much appeal for Gandalf or Tolkien (who had some Luddite tendencies), those of us who enjoy the internet, GPS, and other benefits of modern science have numerous reasons to be grateful for spectroscopy. In this one thing (but probably only this one thing), we ought to be on Saruman’s side.

Chad Orzel is a physics professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY, and the author of two popular science books, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, that explain modern physics through conversations with his dog, Emmy. He runs the physics blog Uncertain Principles at the ScienceBlogs blog network.

1. StrongDreams
Taking light apart to see how it works led to lasers and computers but also to atom bombs, so Gandalf wasn't entirely wrong. In the context of Middle-Earth, of course, the drive for progress led to the uncovering of the Balrog in Moria and the despoilment of the Shire , among other things.

And sometimes taking things apart just leads to what one of Stephen King's characters called "the false light of science." We can follow the behavior of individual calcium ion channels in the cell membrane of a neuron as it propagates a signal, but we still have no idea where "thought" comes from.
John Aylward
2. johnjaylward
Knowlege and Wisdom are 2 different things. Gandalfs comment here indicates that breaking something to find out how it works in unwise. There are better ways to do it. I've known knowlegable people who were unwise, and wise people who weren't as knowlegeable. It's a lot harder to find wise and knowlegeable people. Like they say, "Curiosity killed the cat"

Although your history of the impact of spectroscopy is quite facinating.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
I used to be a scientist (PhD student drop I work at a software company, which uses a similar mental skillset in my opinion) so I totally get what you mean at the quote niggling at you, but I think what Gandalf/Tolkien is truly addressing is the idea that things can be totally reduced to the sum of their parts, progress for the sake of progress's sake, or worse, for power's sake (which is a huge, huge theme of what all of LOTR is supposed to be about, according to his letters). I do not think Sauruman was doing what he did for the joy of discovery or to help his fellow man. I believe Gandalf (and Tolkien especially) was railing at the rather 'soulless' machinery that seemed to be taking over our lives and yet supposed to be 'enlightening' us or making our lives better without any thought to the human spirit or soul. But yes, he was also a rather stodgy guy from what I have read ;)
4. Xenoglossicist
Breaking light was also one of the first things Newton wrote about, when he discovered a prism could split light into different colors and that those colors could be reassembled into white light again. This led to the development of refracting, Newtonian, telescopes and much better astronomical observations.
The question if Isaac Newton was a wise man is something of a different matter, but discovering the decomposition of light was certainly one of the first big discoveries in science as we know it today.
5. Shawn Cooke
Would you end a friendship in order to understand your friend better? Gain fifty pounds to learn what it feels like to be obese? Kill in order to understand the mind of a murderer?

Gandalf's point, I believe, applies to those things that are too precious to break. Imagine the scientific breakthroughs we could achieve in language and development, if we were only morally willing to experiment on children. But we choose not to perform those experiments, because doing so would destroy the very thing we wanted to learn more about.

I do not believe that Tolkien wanted his readers to forsake the idea of all science and progress. I think he wanted them to appreciate the world for its own sake. He wanted to show that if we destroy a thing in order to learn about it, we have done so out of our own selfish reasons, and not out of true regard for the thing we studied.
6. Gazelem
I commend you on your use of Tolkien's work to segway into a fascinating scientific post. But I have to agree with those above: I don't think Gandalf was wrong.

Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast. . . they and the other wizards were charged as stewards over Middle Earth. In Tolkien's mythology, they are analagous to Christian angels. Saruman was chief of them, with white representing purity, wisdom, and the culmination of all the other colors. When he took on other colors, he was using his power for personal gain rather than protection of the world; he was making and atom bomb rather than a fission reactor. Science, knowledge, discovery, we need them, but just as much we need ethics to guide our progress.
7. Grayzie5
Like others I think the poster has misinterpreted the point. The question isn't whether taking things apart to understand them is right, or whether splitting light is a mistake, it's whether breaking something simply for knowledge of it is right. Splitting light doesn't break it. Taking something apart to find out how it works and putting it together again isn't breaking it either. The 'breaking' here implies a permanency, a destruction. Would you end someone's life to understand it? Would you strip a painting? The reason it's 'leaving the path of wisdom' is because it is performing a permanent act that deprives something of its essence in order to own it, to master it.
8. boquaz
I am also a physicist, and I know Chad is a great communicator of physics to the rest of the world, but I think he missed terribly with this post.

He didn't discuss any of the much more meaningful moral issues with physics which are discussed in the comments and would work well with his choice of LOTR as a hook. For example... he could really get into Tolkein's problem with science and question why we study physics so much. Science (physics in particular) has driven the military industrial complex, leading the the "strength through power" doctrine through things like bombs, lasers, satellites and rail guns. This largely worked and we've avoided the kinds of existential wars we faced before implementing this policy. So do we study physics to speed into the future or to scare our enemies with our army of geeks? I'm sure there's a good Saruman quote which could go here.

Perhaps worst, his post is just not interesting. He sandwhiched a typical introduction to spectroscopy lecture in between two references to Gandalf. That's not close to par compared to his usual stuff.
j p
9. sps49
The post is at least as interesting as Asimov's writings on science.

And Saruman was obviously looking at things for the wrong reasons.
Ian Gazzotti
10. Atrus
Tolkien wasn't admittedly the greatest fan of industry and machinery (he thought being stuck in a traffic was akin to Mordor), but his/Gandalf's point was mostly about things that cannot be put together again once they're broken. The examples Tolkien used in other writings about the same concept were cutting a ball to see how it bounces, or tearing down a tower from which you can see the sea to analyze its stones (but losing sight of the sea in the process).
In modern terms we would probably say that Saruman couldn't see the forest for the trees - or the white light because of the single colours.
So it's not really anti-science, more about losing sight of what you're doing the research for in the first place.
11. Immunophilosopher
Remember that Gandalf's first idea when he suspected Frodo had the One Ring was to empirically test whether it was genuine or not, so clearly he can't be all that averse to using the scientific method!

I'm afraid to say I have to agree with the other commenters - the history of optics is a fun and fascinating topic, but accusing Tolkien of "Luddism" seems (IMHO) to be a bit of a strawman.

Even the real, historical Luddites were not actually opposed technology and progress per se, they were instead protesting violently against the unjust economic policies which had left them unemployed and at risk of starvation. In some ways they were forerunners of the organised labour movements of the 20th century (for more information see here:

In this case, I agree with the other commenters that the context of the word "broken" suggests another reading - Saruman puts it next to cloth being "dyed", and a page being "overwritten" - these are both destructive activities, not techniques of analysis.

It seems to me that on a metaphorical level, Saruman is implying that combinations of elements (like white light) are "weak" because they can be divided into component parts, whereas Gandalf instead believes that complexity represents a strength (this is why he adopts the colour white once the position becomes vacant). You could perhaps call it a contest between an excessively reductive worldview and a more moderate emergentist philosophy. It is Saruman's loss of this perspective that causes him to "leave the path of wisdom", and ultimately causes his downfall.
12. Aragrax
Killing the world to gain control over it is unwisdom. Science is useful, but Gandalf was not wrong. It is good to be observant and make, record, and share discoveries, but when one's hunger to understand the pattern better demands destruction of what is to prepare you for control of what is left, you are erring.

Breaking a thing to find out what it is makes it NOT what it is, but what it was. The breaking removes the thing, leaving only the remnants; the greater portion, the essense, is lost.

It is more or less like thinking you hit the bullseye because you hit all around it. You have still missed the target and "missing the target" is the actual meaning of "sin".

From Saruman's words:

“But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

That pretty much sums it up. The seeking of power eclipsing living. A bad habit to be in.
13. Aragrax

If nothing else, you lost me giving him the J.N. Turner kaleidescope coat of the 6th Dr. That thing was the worst offense ever. One might say the 6th Dr's sensibilities "took "a Turner two" for the worse.
14. HaakonKL
Guys, you're misunderstanding what Gandalf was saying.
If you take apart a remote control and then put it back together, you have not broken it. You don't break the rainbow by finding out that it's all light refraction. That makes rainbows ~20% cooler.

What Gandalf is saying is that destroying things, in this case, Sarumann's integrity, honour and such, he was doing it wrong.

That means that there is another way of doing it that is right.

It's the difference between dissecting a dead frog, and dissecting a live 9 year old girl. One is okay, the other is utterly fucked up.

People keep saying that Tolkien was anti-progress. He wasn't. He was merely for some temperance.

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