Philobiblon: The uses of history

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The uses of history

A seriously muddled story from The Sunday Times starts talking about family history, and examples of researchers who have found their families had much higher status in the past. Only the ST (and maybe the Telegraph), could have found this a surprise, but nonetheless some of the examples are interesting.

The story then meanders on to talk about downward social mobility today. It strikes me that it is less common, in general. Beyond a few high profile cases - a former Telegraph proprietor comes to mind - the Victorian pattern of "total ruin" is not relevant. That's partly because better financial regulation (and legal remedies) mean people are far less likely to be wiped out by fraud/mismanagement today, and also because if the younger members of a family have, or are on the way to, professional qualifications, these will more easily enable them to rebuild the family fortunes, or ensure that social status at least is not lost.

But if you have less downward mobility, presumably that also means you have less upward mobility?

In Science, via, The Observer an account of how the study of mythology is helping to identify and highlight the risk of natural disasters. There's a fascinating bit of detective work, linking Native American knowledge and Japanese records that dates a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1700.

Another example ... is from Patrick Nunn, of Fiji in the South Pacific. His studies of volcanoes on the Fijian island of Kadavu indicated they had not been active for tens of thousands of years. 'Then I heard legends of recent eruptions,' he told The Observer. 'I thought them unlikely. When a road was cut there in 2002, I found there had been a volcanic eruption long after it had been occupied by humans. ... Now, Nunn is working for the French government to compile tales that might pinpoint Pacific islands where scientists should look for warnings of earthquakes, volcanoes and catastrophic landslides.

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