19 March 2008

How The Da Vinci Code Doesn't Work?

Since its 2003 publication, "The Da Vinci Code" has caused quite a stir. Since its debut to glowing reviews, it has sold more than 40 million copies in at least 44 languages [ref]. In addition to being a bestseller, it's sparked a lot of controversy. It's a work of fiction, but it presents itself as based in fact, and many critics have raised questions about whether those facts are accurate.

Trouble at the Louvre

"The Da Vinci Code" begins with a crime at the Louvre Museum in Paris. At the behest of someone known as "the Teacher," a man named Silas murders curator Jacques Saunière. After reviewing the evidence, French investigators summon Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon for questioning.

Captain Bezu Fache of the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire (DCPJ) is sure that Langdon is the murderer. Fache has one of his lieutenants plant a GPS dot in Landon's pocket. It's a "metallic, button-shaped disk, about the size of a watch battery." This dot, according to cryptographer Sophie Neveu, is accurate to two feet and lets the DCPJ track Langdon's location, no matter where he is. In other words:

  1. It's tiny.
  2. It's amazingly accurate.
  3. It works indoors.

However, real global positioning system (GPS) devices:
  • Can be small, but they're usually bigger than a watch battery. The unit described in the book would also have to fit a power source and a second radio transmitter into its tiny shell in order to communicate with police computers.
  • Are accurate to somewhere between 13 and 328 feet (4 and 100 meters).
  • Don't work well indoors, under dense tree cover or in urban areas with tall buildings.
A GPS receiver uses the position of three or more satellites to determine
a person's location -- not one, as implied in the novel.

One fact explains all of these points -- by definition, a GPS receiver uses radio waves to communicate with satellites that are 11,000 miles above the Earth's surface. The receiver has to have an unbroken line of sight to these satellites, something it doesn't have indoors. Even military GPS technology can't typically get a fix on a soldier who is in dense tree cover or otherwise concealed. Check out How GPS Receivers Work to learn more.

The troublesome GPS dot keeps causing problems as the story moves along. Sophie tells Langdon that if he throws the dot away, the DCPJ officers will see that it is no longer moving and know he's onto them. She comes up with an ingenious plan. She imbeds the receiver in a bar of soap, breaks a restroom window and throws the soap onto the roof of a passing truck.

That seems like a good plan, and it works. The officers rush to apprehend the truck, believing that Langdon is on the roof. This buys him and Sophie some time. Unfortunately:

  • The restrooms of the Louvre have liquid soap, just like most other public restrooms.
  • According to a "Da Vinci Code" tour guide, the restrooms in that part of the Louvre do not have windows [ref].

In spite of its inaccuracies, this move does buy Sophie and Langdon some time.

Art and History

"The Da Vinci Code" makes a lot of claims about art and the Christian Bible. Of all the disputed statements in the book, these can be the hardest to prove or quantify. Although some people spend their entire lives studying and interpreting art or religious scriptures, both fields are by nature imprecise. It can be impossible to determine an artist's actual intent for a particular piece or the exact meaning behind a particular religious passage.

According to the novel, Leonardo placed hidden symbols and codes in his paintings. For example, the book makes a lot of assertions about the "Mona Lisa," including:
  • Leonardo carried the painting around with him and refused to part with it.
  • The painting is a "well-documented collage of double entendres and playful allusions."
  • Unevenness in the background makes the painting more majestic from the left than the right, which is a testament for Leonardo's love for the feminine.
  • The painting represents an androgynous person or a self-portrait of the artist.
  • Leonardo named the painting for Egyptian deities -- fertility god Amon and fertility goddess Isis.
Which of these points are true?
  • Leonardo did keep the painting rather than give it to the person who had commissioned it.
  • Plenty of art scholars have proposed theories about the painting and who it represents. However, these are all theories -- Leonardo didn't leave behind a step-by-step analysis of his intentions behind the painting.
  • Some scholars have pointed out similarities between the "Mona Lisa" and Leonardo's self portrait. However, the widely accepted theory is that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. This is why the painting is known as "La Joconde" in France and "La Gioconda" in Italy.
  • Although you can blend "Amon" and "Isis" and get "Mona Lisa," there's a much simpler explanation. "Mona" is a title meaning "my lady" in Italian, and the woman who sat for the portrait was named Lisa.

"The Da Vinci Code" also proposes theories about Leonardo's painting of the "Last Supper." According to the book, it shows Mary Magdalene at the right hand of Jesus as well as a disembodied hand bearing a knife. Langdon's explanation for why people don't notice the painting's hidden meaning involves "scotoma" -- the brain blocking knowledge associated with powerful symbols. However, "scotoma" is a medical term that simply means "blind spot." A scotoma typically stems from neurological or ocular dysfunction -- not from exposure to a powerful symbol.

The figure to the right of Jesus does have a feminine appearance, but most scholars agree that it is the apostle John, who typically has a youthful, delicate appearance in artwork of the period. Careful examination of the painting also reveals that the "disembodied" hand really belongs to Peter, although he is holding the knife in a somewhat awkward position. Check out these annotated pictures to learn more.

The novel also makes numerous assertions about history and other works of art. Here's a run-down of some of the frequently contested points:

  • Alexander Pope did not deliver a eulogy at Isaac Newton's funeral, although Pope did write a poem about Newton.
  • The Gospel of Philip was probably written in Greek, not Aramaic, although the only surviving manuscript is written in Coptic.
  • Approximately 50,000 people -- men and women -- died during the years of witch hunts, not 5 million.
  • The Priory of Sion is a fictitious organization, founded and publicized by Pierre Plantard in 1956 [ref].
  • King Philip of France did arrest and torture members of the Knights Templar on a Friday the 13th in 1306. However, there are many other reasons behind some people's superstition regarding Friday the 13th. See How Friday the 13th Works for more detail.
  • Accounts about the history of Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks" differ. However, it seems that money, not displeasure about the symbolism of the painting, caused the dispute that led to two versions of the painting [ref].
  • Nothing in the Bible or any other existing historical document proves that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. At the same time, no existing document proves that he was not.
Finally, most of the theories in "The Da Vinci Code" about Jesus's relationship to Mary Magdalene, whether they had a child, the "real meaning" of the Holy Grail and the history of the Catholic church come from one source. That source is "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent and others. Also known as "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" in the United Kingdom, this book is marketed as a work of nonfiction. However, many critics have raised serious questions about its accuracy.


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