Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sleep and Phrygians

1. A man from Vietnam caught the flu back in the 70s and hasn't slept a wink since, with no adverse health effects, not even--by all appearances--complete madness.

2. According to Herodotus, the Pharaoh Psammetichus wished to discover whether the Egyptians were truly the world's most antique people. Here's the story:

Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their king Psammetichus, believed
themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. Since Psammetichus,
however, made an attempt to discover who were actually the primitive
race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all other
nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity.

This king, finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most
ancient, contrived the following method of discovery:- He took two
children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring
up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word
in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and
from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they
got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them.
His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy
were over, what word they would first articulate.

It happened as he had anticipated. The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and
at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their
room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched
arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened the herdsman
took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming often to
see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed
his lord, and by his command brought the children into his presence.

Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded
to make inquiry what people there was who called anything "becos,"
and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for bread.
In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their
claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.

It's actually a fairly respectable bit of scientific inquiry, all things considered.
It's not exactly experimentally rigorous, but the pharaoh at least tried to learn the
true answer. Of course, children who do not learn language early on almost never
recover and cannot live normal lives--so it is also terribly cruel. But would you
expect anything less from the pharaohs?

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