Science's Love Affair with The Lord of the Rings

What has it got in its academic journals, precious?

Though at first glance, science and fantasy seem to be polar opposites, the Venn diagram circles of “scientists” and “Lord of the Rings fans” have a large overlap. One could (lovingly!) label that region “nerds.”

Fight me on that if you want, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests scientists love J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic. Several newly discovered animal species have been named after characters from the books—a genus of wasps in New Zealand is now called Shireplitis, with species S. bilboi, S.  frodoi, S. meriadoci, S. peregrini, S. samwisei and S. tolkieni. The wasps bear the names of the hobbits because they too are “small, short, and stout,” according to a press release. On the other side of the size spectrum, paleontologists named a 900-pound ancient crocodile Anthracosuchus balrogus, after the Balrog, a giant whip-wielding fire monster from The Lord of the Rings. There is also a dinosaur named after Sauron, which seems kinda harsh to me. And many, many more, if the website “Curious Taxonomy” is to be believed.

“Given Tolkien’s passion for nomenclature, his coinage, over decades, of enormous numbers of euphonious names—not to mention scientists’ fondness for Tolkien—it is perhaps inevitable that Tolkien has been accorded formal taxonomic commemoration like no other author,” writes Henry Gee in his book The Science of Middle Earth.

Other disciplines aren’t left out of the fun, though—there’s a geologically interesting region in Australia called the “Mordor Alkaline Igneous Complex,” a pair of asteroids named “Tolkien” and “Bilbo,” and a crater on Mercury also named “Tolkien.” A spectrograph used to study certain kinds of galaxies is called the Spectrographic Areal Unit for Research on Optical Nebulae (SAURON), which has an accompanying processing system called Palantir. A palantir is Middle Earth’s equivalent of a crystal ball, allowing the holder to see anywhere in the world. Palantir is also the name of a software company that has been linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, which is an instance in which the reference crosses over from fun into too-real.

Naming something is one way to honor your favorite author—another is by applying your scientific expertise to analyzing Tolkien’s fictional world. And I don’t mean in a media-studies sense, though there’s of course plenty of that too. There are a remarkable number of papers purporting to scientifically study aspects of The Lord of the Rings and the world it takes place in. Much of the writing is tongue in cheek, of course, but many of these papers also incorporate actual scientific principles and methods.

A recent one, from March, published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, wonders whether the “seemingly unachievable feats of heroism and athleticism” accomplished in the books are due to greater oxygen content in Middle Earth’s atmosphere. “The men of Middle Earth are analogous to humans on Earth,” as the study points out, so the researchers take Aragorn and his “tireless defense of Helm’s Deep” against an onslaught of evil orcs as an example.

“Although Aragorn gives his age to be 87 he displays the physical prowess of a man assumed to be in their mid-30s due to him being from a magical race of men, the Dúnedain, gifted with long life,” they write. “Therefore his age will be approximated to be 35 for the purposes of calculating his arterial partial pressure of oxygen.”

Using an equation to calculate how atmospheric makeup would affect the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide in the lungs, they conclude that a higher percentage of oxygen in Middle Earth’s atmosphere could well play into Aragorn’s ability to stay up all night slaying orcs.

“This could also explain why creatures on Middle Earth can grow to a much larger size than they do on Earth, such as Shelob the giant spider, and how Middle Earth is home to large creatures such as dragons,” the study reads.

Other pressing Middle-Earth questions that science has tried to answer include:

Climate scientists at the University of Bristol also created an elaborate climate model of Middle Earth (though the paper was published under the name Radagast the Brown). According to the model, the climate of the Shire, where hobbits live, is most similar to “Lincolnshire or Leicestershire in the U.K.” and Mordor is apparently similar to Los Angeles or west Texas, except, you know, without the all-seeing lidless eye sweeping over the landscape.

“It has been documented that Middle-Earth caught the attention of students and practitioners of science from the early days of Tolkien fandom. For example, in the 1960s, the Tolkien Society members were said to mainly consist of ‘students, teachers, scientists, or psychologists,’” writes Kristine Larsen, an astronomy professor at Central Connecticut State University, in her paper “SAURON, Mount Doom, and Elvish Moths: The Influence of Tolkien on Modern Science.” The paper points out many of the taxonomical references to Tolkien listed above.

I asked Larsen why she thinks so many scientists are interested in the novels and their expanded universe.

“When you have scientists who are fans of pop culture, they’re going to see the science in it,” she says. “It’s just such an intricate universe. It’s so geeky. You can delve into it. There’s the languages of it, the geography of it, and the lineages. It’s very detail oriented, and scientists in general like things that have depth and detail.”

Larsen is also the author of many other papers on Tolkien, a large portion of which, understandably, deal with Middle Earth’s astronomy. In one, for example, she discusses the likelihood that the heavenly body Borgil, which appears in the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is supposed to be the star Aldebaran. She’s also written papers on using Tolkien as a teaching tool, and says that’s partly where her interest comes from.

“I use this as a hook to get students interested in science,” she says. “I’m also interested in recovering all the science that Tolkien quietly wove into Middle Earth because there’s science in there that the casual reader has not recognized. There are some mysteries where Tolkien scholars didn’t understand why Tolkien did some things. If I can help them understand, ‘Oh, well this description here really fits an aurora in the sky, or when Tolkien was writing about these fictional constellations, perhaps he had these real constellations in mind based on his descriptions.’ So in a sense I’m helping to work with the Tolkien scholar community to understand Tolkien’s work at a greater depth. And it’s obviously great fun.”