The auditorium lights were low as the high school students filed in — and I was on the stage with the teachers who led the school's honor society.
My job was to give a short speech to the new inductees whose grades and activities earned them their place in the auditorium. There were notes for the speech in my pocket but when the teacher lit a candle on the table with the student's certificates, I felt something shift.
"See that candle," I told the students when it was my turn to speak. "It represents knowledge. It represents the free pursuit of knowledge and its free exchange. It represents a light in the darkness for all of us."
"But," I told them, "that light can be extinguished. In fact, many times it has. Those times are what we call 'dark ages' and they are blanketed with suffering. Your job, from this day forward, is to ensure the light continues to burn."
That experience returned to me last week as I read about the destruction of Palmyra and the extraordinary bravery of the archeologist Khaled al-Asaad. Palmyra is UNESCO's world heritage archeological site in Syria of singular importance. Dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, Palmyra began as caravan oasis and grew to become the crossroads of several civilizations in the ancient world. Today, the site is rich with artifacts of that time.
When ISIS took control of Palmyra in May, archeologists immediately feared the extremists would destroy it as they had other ancient sites. In July, UNESCO warned the site was being looted on an "industrial scale" with artifacts sold off to finance ISIS operations. Searching for Palmyra's treasures led ISIS to Khaled al-Asaad, who had been the head of antiquities there for decades. According to published reports, al-Asaad refused to tell ISIS where other artifacts where hidden. For that act of defiance, the 82-year-old researcher was publicly executed. Since then, ISIS forces have destroyed or damaged significant sections of the ancient site.
There is enough horror surrounding ISIS to stagger the heart. But the destruction of these sites represents a particular kind of crime against humanity whose significance speaks directly to the topic of this blog: science and its place in human culture. Archeology combines physical science, social science and the humanities in the service of knowledge and memory. To the best of their ability, its practitioners deploy the tools of scholarship to recover the truths of our collective past.
But these truths are exactly what the ideologues of ISIS resist. It is exactly the knowledge of what existed before that they want erased. In doing so, they've shown us what the absence of knowledge and the absence of memory look like — they've reminded us of what a 'dark age' truly means.
In the West, we think of the Dark Ages as the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. While many historians argue that this long period showed greater cultural complexity than the usual caricature, it's clear that much was lost in the early centuries. In particular, Greek and Roman knowledge from astronomy to plumbing would take centuries to recover (ironically for ISIS, the vibrant Islamic empires of the time preserved many of Hellenistic Greek's greatest works).
But there have been other dark ages in other cultures. Examples include the Bronze Age collapse of 1200 BCE and the Greek Dark Ages of 1100 BCE to 750 BCE. The periods following colonization also constitute dark ages for many indigenous peoples. As the urbanist Jane Jacobs describes them, dark ages are a kind of extended cultural amnesia.
"Dark ages are horrible ordeals, incomparably worse than the temporary amnesia sometimes experienced by stunned survivors of earthquakes, battles or bombing firestorms.... During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as if it had not existed."
Jacobs provides a partial list of what got lost in the "forgetful centuries" after the end of Roman civilization: "the use of legumes in crop rotation to restore the soil; how to mine and smelt iron ... how to harvest honey from hollow-tile hives doubling as fences."
In a dark age, the knowledge that supported the previous vibrant and complex society is gone. But as Jacob observes, "A dark age is not merely a collection of subtractions. It is not a blank, as much is added to fill in the subtractions." Thus in place of what has been forgotten, we find older and more brutal forms of human being flooding back.
Dark ages can happen for many reasons, all of them are catastrophic. But what dies first is a vibrant civilization's knowledge: its treasure of methods and means; the record of its curiosity in art and science. Once that is gone, once that is forgotten, the long descent into brutality and suffering can begin.
This is what ISIS is showing us. Dark ages begin with an assault on knowledge and memory. What is occurring in Palmyra has happened before. As explosions topple its walls, we can hear echoes of the Library of Alexandria's destruction and the murder of its protector Hypatia 15 centuries ago.
Knowledge gained from science and scholarship, in its most democratically practiced forms, will always be threatening to someone. That is what I was trying to tell the honors students that evening. Our defense of that knowledge, our defense of the mechanisms used to obtain it must be vigorous, continuous and carried out with both stridency and an unrelenting compassion. The world will not likely get any easier as the planet's winds change and its seas rise. We will need all our traditions of free inquiry to see us through to new opportunities.
As I told those students that night, no one asks to find themselves in the position of holding back the darkness. That is simply fate. What we can do, however, is to remain stalwart in our determination to pass the light forward to those who follow.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.