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Brainiac

Great atheists of the Civil Rights movement

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

A portrait of African-American labor leader A(sa) Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979), circa 1950. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A. Philip Randolph.

I have a (secular) dream

In the story of the civil rights movement, pride of place is often given to religion and preachers--not least because Martin Luther King Jr. so powerfully used religious ideas to make the case for racial justice. Writing for the Religion News Service, Kimberly Winston points out that there were plenty of African-American atheists involved in the movement, but they’re often overlooked.

Take A. Philip Randolph. Today he’s hardly remembered, but Randolph was a prominent labor leader who organized the historic March on Washington at which MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. King himself called him “the chief.” He was also an atheist. “In 1973,” Winston writes, “Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He is reported to have said of prayer: ‘Our aim is to appeal to reason....We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.’”

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Overall, Winston argues, the civil rights movement was more spiritually diverse than we now tend to think. Randolph and other African-American atheists, Winston writes, don’t fit into the grand civil rights narrative, which sees the movement as the work of mainly “religious--mainly Christian--people.” Their atheism, and its relationship to their activism, is rarely discussed, in part because African-Americans today are among the most religious groups in the United States.

Just how atheistic were the civil rights atheists? Winston quotes Juan Floyd-Thomas, a professor at Vanderbilt who’s just written a book on black humanism. He says that, if they were alive today, many atheistic civil rights leaders “would not be too far out of step” with today’s uncompromising New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The secret of sci-fi music

Quick: think of the opening notes from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (they’re from the piece “Also sprach Zarathustra,” by Richard Strauss). Now think of the theme from “Star Wars.” And now--if you’re a real geek--hum (to yourself) the theme song from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” What do they all have in common? At the sci-fi website io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders talks with composer Bear McCreary and musicologist Jeremy Barham, who explain that, since “2001,” science-fiction theme songs have tended to rely on the same musical interval for their fanfares: the perfect fifth, whose sound, Barham explains, creates an impression of “the cosmos, or transcendence or generally mind-blowing scenarios in film.”

In music, a “perfect fifth” is the space between two notes pitched five steps apart on the major scale, like a G and a D. The power of their sound together, McCreary says, is based on a natural phenomenon called an overtone. When you pluck a G string, for instance, you’ll also hear the ghosts of other, higher notes, including the perfect fifth.

According to McCreary, what makes the perfect fifth ideal for science-fiction theme songs is that it “feel[s] very strong...because you play a note and then you play the octave above it, you’re reinforcing overtones....So if you want to indicate something that has strength or grandeur, this is a really simple and powerful way of doing that. You’re building these notes that have versions of themselves built into themselves.”

Before “2001,” science-fiction music was going down a different route--theme songs weren’t quite as tied to the perfect fifth (think of the theme from “Doctor Who”). Now, you may find that the perfect fifth conjures the cosmos even when it’s not supposed to. Just try listening to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Dude, where’s your etymology?

Nowadays we’re all “dudes”--male and female, young and old. But where did the word “dude” come from in the first place? Writing for Oxford University Press’s Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman provides a masterful overview of the (very speculative) history of the word dude.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.”

In the 19th century, a “dude” was something like a hipster--an ostentatious, fashionable, and fussy city slicker (thus the “dude ranch”--a ranch meant for tourists). Earlier than that, though, and “dude” recedes into the mists of time. Liberman runs down the possibilities:

[D]ude [might be] an abbreviation of Low German dudenkop “blockhead” (kop = Kopf “head”)....Another putative etymon suggested for dude is Portuguese doudo, a dialectal form of doido “simpleton, fool”....Another bizarre guess had it that at one time New York dandies greeted one another with “How dew you dew?” A few letter writers thought that dude has ties with the name of the now extinct dodo.

The simple truth is that nobody knows: “Dude” is an everyday linguistic mystery.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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