Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for ... Orpheus

Che faro senza Eurydice... (I have lost my Eurydice...)

Orpheus was, according to Pindar, the son of Oeagrus, King of Thrace, and the muse Calliope (of whom more otherwhen). Most sources agree he was a real historical personage. The myths around him ascribe to him an otherworldly facility with music and song, although other gifts are mentioned as well - healing, astrology, agriculture. Legend has it that he was taught by Apollo himself to play the lyre. Aboard the Argo, Orpheus outsang the sirens and saved Jason from the fate that would later threaten the Odyssey.

Most famously of all, Orpheus descended into the underworld to sing for the release of his beloved wife Eurydice - his song was so sweet it charmed even Hades himself, and the deal was struck that Eurydice could accompany him to the surface: on the one condition that he could not look back at her until she was once more upon the Earth. Naturally, he was extremely anxious, and every step of the way out of Hades' dark realm he was tempted to look back; but he was able to resist until he reached the entrance to the Underworld, and as he stepped out he turned - forgetting that his dear Eurydice was still a step inside the gates. Hades reclaimed her, and in his grief Orpheus foreswore all other women.

The surpassing beauty of his music nonetheless made him attractive to many, and they became jealous and vengeful as he continually spurned them. He was eventually torn apart by a gang of women - a fate which Plato, at least, considered fitting punishment for his "cowardice" in not choosing to follow Eurydice into death, rather than seek to bring her back with him to life. Perhaps this, and other unflattering views of Orpheus (Albrecht Durer called him Orfeus der erst puseran, Orfeus the first sodomite), was more of the same jealousy: the human soul is curiously ill-configured to suffer beauty it cannot either own or emulate.

Jealousy may also account for a later, historical figure whose name certainly seems to have been inspired by the Thracian minstrel - Orffyreus, born Johann Bessler in Saxony, Germany, in 1680. Unlike his near-namesake, Orffyreus was not noted for his voice; although, in his own way, he too defied the Gods.

Bessler's infamy stems from a rather remarkable announcement he made at the tender age of 22. Arriving in the town of Gera, he exhibited a "self-moving wheel" - the first of several machines he was to demonstrate before a largely hostile and unbelieving public that purported to be perpetual motion machines. The largest of these was 12m in diameter, and sufficiently impressed Gottfried Liebniz to remark that "there is something extraordinary about Orffyreus' machine."

A perpetual motion machine, of course, contradicts the laws of thermodynamics. It may be worth considering that Orffyreus wrought his wonders nearly two centuries before those laws were elucidated, and nobody, in his time or since, has been able to either replicate or refute his achievements. The laws of thermodynamics, so fundamental to modern science, are predicated on the impossibility of Orffyreus' perpetuum mobile. For those of you inclined to side with Helmholtz and company over an obscure Saxon inventor, I leave you this 1895 statement from Lord Kelvin:

"heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Postscript: One may wonder why Kelvin's assertion never became a scientific law, while Clausius' and Helmholtz' did. I offer this cynical perspective: there's not a lot of money in free energy, is there?

1 comment:

Heather Henry said...

For some reason this post reminded me of a great movie I watched not too long ago. I believe it was called Pendulum, but I could be wrong. It had Jeremy Irons in it and was based on a true story. It was an excellent movie. I will look it up and see if that is the proper name for it.
The cynical perspective, is so, so true. Sadly, we have many ways to produce free energy, but someone always seems to find a way to corrupt it.