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In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth. The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific. On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin. Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years. Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.
The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers. On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.
The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering. When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth. The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in). No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.
The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth. In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions. To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere. These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics. The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:
The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe). Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe. Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands. If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.
The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack. The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).
In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny. Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus). Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess. Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets. In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot). Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.
Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance. As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities. This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached. The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”). The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army. Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.
The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance. There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake. One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond. At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area. It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish. I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!
Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks. They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago. The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago). Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia. During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea. Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process). Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).
The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda. Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly. Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).
Happy Earth Day! Today, to celebrate our lovely planet, we write about the largest tree (by canopy area) on Earth, Thimmamma Marrimanu, a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) which lives in Andhra Pradesh, India. Banyan trees are fig trees which propagate from aerial dispersal—birds eat the fig seeds and (in due course) drop them on trees, rocks, or buildings. The roots grow downward as aerial roots and then become tree trunks–so the tree is known to cover buildings or strangle other trees. Banyans also reproduce by vegetative, “branching” propagation. A whole twisted interwoven grove of banyan trees is often actually one tree.
Such is the case with Thimmamma Marrimanu which has spread out over eight acres and is at least 200 years old (though, as with clonal colonies like Pando, it can be difficult to ascertain the true age of Banyan trees). Thimmamma Marrimanu is named after a devoted wife who was married to a Bala Veerayya (whatever that is). When her husband died in 1434, Thimmamma committed sati and immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. A temple to the grieving (but misguided!) widow was built on the spot—then the tree sprouted from the temple.
Banyan trees are the national tree of India and they have become worked into the religions of South Asia. In Hinduism it is said that the leaf of the banyan tree is the resting place for the avatar Krishna. The fact that the Banyan tree forms a huge group of trunks and branches which seem heterogeneous but are actually a single entity is believed to have spiritual significance and underline greater truths about the interconnected nature of all living things.
What a long week! What with mad bombers and North Korea and taxes and sexy exes and goodness knows what else, I am totally ready to phone in today’s blog post. Fortunately I have the ideal solution for a quick but fun post! This year I forgot to celebrate Ferrebeekeeper’s 3rd anniversary. For our first year celebration I published a group of doodles. These are little drawings which I do at the Monday morning staff meeting at the beginning of every work week. This might sound well…sketchy, but I assure you doodling keeps me alert and allows me to remember what was said at each meeting. As you can see from the strange eclectic subjects, I think the whimsy and freedom of the weekend hasn’t quite worn off when I draw these. Sometimes, during my lunch break I color my little doodles in with highlighters or crayons. So here are 21 weeks’ worth of Monday morning staff meeting doodles. These little throw-away doodles open up a world into the subconscious where our true feelings about the universe can be found. Strangely these doodles reveal that I really like melting Middle Eastern cities of arabesques and angels (?). Less surprisingly I love fantasy beasts, gardens, fish, and mammals. I’m not sure why I love paisleys so much—maybe the sixties had a greater influence on me than I know (though I certainly wasn’t around back then).
My favorite is the little purple pleasure garden where a flamingo watches a phoenix fly away from the ruins of an alien robot (below), but I also like the bat and the geometric widget beast relaxing by a tree at sunset, as well as the underwater city of sharks and biomechanical walking buildings. Which ones do you like? Please leave a comment–I promise I’ll respond next week!
Exciting news from the heavens! Today NASA has reported that the Kepler mission has discovered 3 new planets in the habitable zones of two distant stars. Of the thousands of worlds so far discovered, these three are most likely to be habitable. Best of all the planets are crazy!
Kepler is a NASA space telescope which was launched on March, 2009. It makes use of an incredibly sensitive photometer to simultaneously & incessantly monitor the brightness of over 150,000 nearby stars. The brightness of a star dims slightly whenever an exoplanet transits between it and Kepler. Thanks to Kepler’s inhuman vigilance and robotic ability to perceive nearly imperceptible light changes, we are now discovering thousands of new planets, although most of them are Jovian sized gas worlds.
The three worlds reported today lie in the habitable zone—the region around a star where water exists in a liquid form (as it does here on beautiful Earth). Two of the newly discovered habitable zone planets are in a five planet system orbiting a dwarf star just two-thirds the size of the sun which lies 1,200 light years from Earth. Here is a diagram of the Kepler 62 system.
Of these five worlds, two lie in the habitable zone, Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e. Kepler 62 F is most likely a rocky planet and is only 40 percent larger than Earth. It has an orbit which last 267 (Earth) days. So far it is the smallest exoplanet found in the habitable zone. The star it orbits is 7 billion years old (as opposed to the sun which is four and a half billion years old) so life would have had plenty of time to develop. The other habitable zone planet in the Kepler 62 system, Kepler 62e is probably about 60% larger than our planet. It is somewhat closer to the star and astrophysicists speculate it may be a water world of deep oceans.
The other new exoplanet Kepler-69c appears to orbit a star very similar to Earth’s sun. It orbits at the inward edge of the habitable zone (nearing where Venus is in our solar system) so it may be hot. The planet is estimated to be about 70% larger than Earth, and is also thought to be a water world with oceans thousands of kilometers deep. I am finding it impossible not to imagine those vast oceans filled with asbestos shelled sea-turtles the size of dump trucks, huge shoals of thermophile micro-squid, and burning-hot chartreuse uber-penguins, but if any life is actually on Kepler-69c, it is probably extremely different from Earth life.
Of course Kepler can only find these planets; it is unable to observe very much about them. In order to do that, humankind will need some sort of huge amazing super telescope. Speaking of which, tune in next week when I write about humankind’s plans for building a huge amazing super telescope in the Chilean Andes!
The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.
This requires some explaining.
On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula. Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth). Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.
In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another. North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once. On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree. Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight. The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct. In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs. The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack. With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.
Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation. Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force. Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group. The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining. They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.
Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected: Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever). In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce. The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown. Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).
The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin. The French word for a flea is “une puce”. Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas: so puce has its origin in bloodstains. I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”. Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity. Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it). The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.