Michael Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology (UCL) and former Pro-Provost for Europe, considers Greek mythology’s Daidalos as an early example of research mobility. Michael’s book on the life and times of Daidalos, “Into the Labyrinth: In Search of Daidalos” was published in September 2020 by Austin Macauley.
The increased mobility of researchers has been one of the great achievements of the various Framework programmes financed by the European Commission. This has enabled young researchers to acquire new skills and has greatly encouraged collaborative research projects between institutions in different countries. The mobility of skilled individuals within Europe, and the benefits resulting from this, has a long history. In the following paragraphs I would like to draw attention to one of the earliest examples of this – the famed polymath Daidalos.
Daidalos was considered to be a great sculptor, inventor, engineer, architect and scientist. He was so renowned that Socrates proudly boasted of having been descended from him. His major works were carried out in Athens, Crete, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia and Egypt and he also spent time in Libya and Turkey. However, these travels were not encouraged and financed by the benevolence of some ancient forerunner of the European Commission. They were often driven by his need to escape from some tricky situation in which he had become embroiled or to find a new sponsor willing to support his work. Daidalos, like the vast majority of modern researchers, was not wealthy enough to support his own research and therefore had to rely on the munificence of rich patrons who, of course, could withdraw their patronage when they felt like it. How he would have loved to have had the stable support of a Framework grant to help him !
His great works included the labyrinth at Knossos (Figure 1), a temple of Apollo at Cumae (Italy), a temple of Britomartis in Crete, the city of Akragas (Sicily), a flood control system for Megaris (Sicily), large cone-shaped towers in Sardinia and a gateway for the temple of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt (Figure 2). He was the first sculptor to produce statues with open eyes, with arms freed from the sides of the body and legs that were separated from one another (Figure 3).
His numerous inventions included the saw, axe, plumb-line, gimlet, glue, isinglass, compass, adze, auger, hammer, masts and yards for ships, the drill and the potters wheel. And, of course, it’s widely known that he was the first human being to fly.
While many of his works and inventions were of great benefit to humankind, some of his projects, though no doubt well-intentioned, had unfortunate consequences. He built a wooden cow device (Figure 4) to enable the first experiment in cross-species fertilisation (between a bull and a human), but this resulted in the birth of the minotaur (Figure 5) to Queen Pasiphae of Crete.
And it was to house this poor creature that Daidalos was ordered by King Minos to build the labyrinth at Knossos. At the request of Princess Ariadne, he came up with the ingenious idea of using a ball of thread to guide Theseus out of the labyrinth (Figure 6) and this enabled the latter to kill the unfortunate minotaur (Figure 7). But, ultimately, this resulted in the abandonment of Ariadne on the island of Naxos (Figure 8) and the death of King Aegeus of Athens. King Minos imprisoned him on Crete and in order to escape he built flying devices (possibly feathered wings but, more likely, hang gliders) for himself and his son, Ikaros. As we all know, this ended badly for Ikaros (Figure 9).
After an exciting and very productive life, though very fraught at times, Daidalos eventually retired to a beautiful part of the Turkish coast near present-day Fethiye (known as Telmessos in ancient times). This region was a Cretan colony and at that time was ruled by one of King Minos’ brothers, Sarpedon, who had become a bitter enemy of Minos and was therefore sympathetic towards Daidalos. Sadly, Daidalos died there after being bitten by a snake. A town grew up around his burial place and was named Daidala (or Daedala) after him. The town became important on account of it being on the frontier between two significant and influential regions, Caria and Lycia, and is mentioned by a number of Roman authors.
Daidalos is a very important figure in Western culture. His inventions are, of course, an important legacy. But, in addition, his life and works have been a constant inspiration to artists throughout history. Philosophers too, have drawn on his life to illustrate their beliefs, an important example being the famous debate on science between Russell and Haldane (Daedalus, or Science and the Future by JBS Haldane and Icarus, or the Future of Science by Bertrand Russell).
While obtaining funding to support our research is undoubtedly a difficult task nowadays, it could be worse. While writing your next grant application, spare a thought for poor old Daidalos who had to cope with the whims of kings, queens and princesses in order to carry on with his projects.
Featured image: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-69). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.