Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bretagne - A Land of Extremes

Paris is wonderful, but every once in a while, one has the urge to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. That opportunity presented itself last week in connection with some translation work I did for ELI - The Extreme Light Infrastructure European Project. 

My small part of this huge scientific undertaking to study laser-matter interaction involved translating three songs from French into English.  The songs are part of a program for children to help them understand what ELI is.  First line -   Have you seen ELI?   ELI is light dazzling by.   It's not Shakespeare, but you have to imagine it sung to a great reggae beat with a whole band behind it.  Click here if you want to know more about ELI , which as one of my songs says:

Questions matter, gives answers.
A tour de force to fight cancer....
Nuclear waste he's gonna reverse,
He's understanding the universe.

The recording of the songs was done in a studio in Auray in southern Brittany and I was there to help with any last minute English emergencies. It was also a great opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful and mystical parts of France.  Just three hours from Paris by TGV, France's high-speed trains,  Auray is very close to Vannes with its many half-timbered houses as well as to the inland sea of the Golfe du Morbihan and the menhirs of Carnac.

Joined by a good friend from Paris in a zippy little red rental car, in two days we saw it all:  the rugged seacoast with its 18 foot tides, the islands, the ports, the salt flats, the lost byways, the castles and the megaliths and dolmans  of Carnac.  We drank Breton cider and ate fish soup, oysters, clams and kouign amannthe sinfully rich butter cake of Brittany. (Click here for a recipe and article.)  

The day we went to Carnac was misty  and blustery - perfect weather for viewing the mysterious Neolithic megaliths that date to about 4,000 b.c.   Even if you have seen photos, nothing prepares you for the sight of thousands of enormous standing stones, arranged from smallest to largest marching up a hillside in perfectly-aligned rows.

Why did these pre-Celtic people over a period of perhaps 2,000 years move and align stones that in some cases weighed many tons? Local tradition says the megaliths are Roman soldiers turned to stone.  A romantic notion, but difficult to achieve, even with magic since the megaliths were in place long before the Romans arrived.  Many theories have been proposed - a giant calendar, a seismic indicator to predict earthquakes, a religious monument.  There is some evidence to support another theory  that  the alignments were built  to study the sun, moon, planets and stars.  

If so, then one of the great achievements of the ancient world, older even than the pyramids, was the work of dedicated scientists not unlike those I worked with on the ELI project. The tools of the Neolithic people were less sophisticated, but like their modern counterparts, they tackled seemingly impossible problems in their desire to push back the frontiers of knowledge. 

To see my other photos of  Brittany, click here.

A bientôt,

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