Gandalf Was Wrong: Spectroscopy and The Lord of the Rings

It’s a banner day for science explainer things I wrote, as a piece I wrote has just gone live at

Why Gandalf Is Wrong

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.

I wrote this about a year ago, and made a few attempts to shop it around, which mostly serves to demonstrate that I’d never make it as a freelance writer, because I don’t have the patience for navigating the submission process. I’m pretty happy to see it at Tor, though, because they’re a great site, and serve an appropriate audience. And, indeed, there are a few comments over there taking issue with my framing…

Anyway, I’m very happy with the way the piece turned out, so go read it. I’m not responsible for the headline image of Saruman in a Dr. Who jacket, though– that was Tor’s production people, not me…

4 thoughts on “Gandalf Was Wrong: Spectroscopy and The Lord of the Rings

  1. Tolkien was telling a story of a highly secular world…no real supernatural mythology…while maintaining his Catholic sensibilities. From that, I’d suggest that generally speaking, if you base your entire knowledge set on information handed down from some authority, you are more likely to question anyone who wants to de-construct that information in the name of finding even greater knowledge. Western philosophy tends to be very safety conscious with regards to gaining greater knowledge: “Eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.” Prometheus paying a huge price despite the fact his gift of knowledge was a boon to mankind. Unless of course you’d rather argue moving out of the trees and cooking food was a bad move. ala “Hitchhikers Guide,” philosophers.

  2. Hey, I thought the same back then!
    Tolkien was quite a Luddite, notice how building steel mills makes Saruman obiviously evil.

  3. 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 commenters over at Tor – 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.

  4. @ Mike Olson:

    Sorry, but your examples are a little off:

    The forbidden fruit in Genesis isn’t from the tree of “knowledge”, it’s from the tree of the knowledge of “good and evil”, specifically. Adam and Eve find out what it feels to do evil after they take the fruit, because doing so meant they broke a promise they had made.

    Also, Prometheus’ crime wasn’t giving knowledge, it was his theft of that knowledge. He was, in a way, a martyr for open access journals!

    As for Catholics, I don’t know about Tolkein personally, but the traditional Catholic position as outlined by Thomas Aquinas is that almost all our knowledge comes from the senses (i.e. science, broadly defined), with “God” only getting involved to tell us things we couldn’t possibly know from our senses alone (like the existence of undetectable realities).

    IMO the Lord of the Rings’ social commentary is about the abuse of technology rather than opposition to progress.

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