Friday, December 25, 2015

Siege Science

I am reading a fascinating book called Captivity by the Hungarian author Yorgy Spiro. I am really enjoying it, but it is certainly not a light read and the translation makes it even harder.  Plus it is 850 pages long.

The book takes place in the 1st century Roman Empire. It centers on the Jewish son of a freed slave who lived in Rome until his 15th birthday and they gets caught up in some adventures. I am not sure how accurate the historical narrative is, but if it is true I probably learned more about history over the past 500 pages (halfway through!!) than I learned in high school.

The book itself is a topic for another time.  What I want to stream of consciousness (is that a verb?) for a few minutes is something that the one of the characters was wondering about – what are the relevant sciences (natural and social) important to develop in anticipation of your walled city being besieged by an invading army.  Remember, we are talking about 1st century warfare here so this was a pretty important subject.  And 1st century technology means a lot of this was not yet developed. 

Here is my list:

  • Food chemistry: How do you dry and preserve enough of the right foods to keep a large urban population nutritionally supplied for an unknown extended time?
  • Toxicology: How do you check the water supply coming in from outside to make sure it has not been poisoned? And if possible, how do you poison the attacking army’s water?
  • Medicine: What medicines need to be stockpiled and in what quantities?
  • Public Health: How do you check for disease outbreaks and treat them quickly and effectively before panic breaks out? Remember, no one can leave the city.
  • Structural Mechanics: How do you keep the city walls from succumbing to the digging under the wall and ballista impacts?
  • Economics: How do you divide resources among the military and civilian populations in the city to be fair and to be safe?
  • Psychology: How do you deal with residents who succumb to panic and prevent fear from becoming widespread?  And depression.  How do you inflict psychological damage on the attackers?
  • Sociology: How do you prevent mass panics and rumors from spreading?
  • Communication: How do you communicate with allies in free cities at a distance?
  • Cryptology: How do you encode messages to be sent out with agents trying to break through the siege line and get to allies outside the city?
  • Urban Planning: If your city is planning ahead, how do you create storage for food, water, military supplies, etc. so that you can stockpile enough product without bankrupting the city in the meanwhile?

Some of these are relevant today.  They might be relevant for space travel and colonization.  They might be relevant for emergency planning in advance of climate change.  They might be relevant for something like Ebola outbreaks.

But really it was just a fun mental exercise.