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Today I am posting some pictures of what I think is the most beautiful deep space object. The Sombrero Galaxy (M104) is a nearby galaxy which is visible edge-on in the constellation of Virgo. Actually, calling it an object might be a bit misleading since M104 consists of more than 400 billion stars–not to mention numerous associated globular clusters, innumerable planets, immense clouds of gas & gas, and a supermassive black hole which lies in the center. The black hole in the center of M104 isn’t a mild mannered & quiescent black hole like the one in the center of the Milky Way either. Based on the speed of revolution of the stars near the middle of M104, astronomers calculate that the central black hole has a billion times the mass of the sun.
In cosmic terms, the Sombrero galaxy is nearby—which is to say it is merely 28-odd million light years away. The galaxy was discovered in the late eighteenth century by Pierre Méchain . Other prominent 18th century astronomers subsequently observed and studied M104, including Charles Messier (which is the reason the galaxy is included in the “Messier” catalog and has a M-designation) and the redoubtable William Herschel who noted a “dark-stratum” bounding the luminous central bulge. We now know that this ring around M104 is a toroid dust lane of vast proportions which halos the galaxy. Astronomers initially thought that the Sombrero Galaxy was an unbarred spiral galaxy, but thanks to observations from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope (an infrared scope orbiting Earth), the scientific community has revised their estimation of its size upward. It lies somewhere between a spiral galaxy and an elliptical galaxy. In other words, when you look at the Sombrero Galaxy, you are looking at something vast beyond human comprehension—a galaxy bigger than our own filled with who knows what things we will never know. And yet if you expand the Hubble photo at the top of this post, you will see that all of the little stars shining around M104 are other galaxies farther away.
I work at Rockefeller Center and last night was the big Christmas tree lighting ceremony. This happens every year and it makes the entire area into a complete circus. There are teams of dancing Santas, groups of yetis, elves, and snipers. The police put up barricades everywhere and entertainment types shine dazzling spotlights into all of the windows. Worst of all, celebrities are everywhere so you could easily get roughed up by Mariah Carrey’s bodyguards or shunted to the side for Kenny Chesney’s posse.
To cut through the Christmas treacle a bit I am therefore presenting my own light show: a mini gallery of gothic chandeliers. I realize that this would have worked during the Halloween season, but, unfortunately I didn’t think of it then. Additionally the aesthetic spirit of gothic artifice is appropriate any time of year. Enjoy the dark illumination!
Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America. Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates). Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America. These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous. This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.
There are three coral snakes which live in the United States. The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa. All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes). Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!
Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes. Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.
Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible. This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose. Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans. Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later. In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest. Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).
Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable. There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue. Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).
*Don’t be this guy.
My apologies for the blogging break last week. Usually I try to write a new post every weekday, but last week was a blogging holiday. To reinvigorate things after the lost week, let’s turn to a big subject—in fact a super-massive subject! Long ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about Eta Carinae, a blue hypergiant with a hundred times the mass of the sun (which is itself a million times more massive than Earth). Stars like Eta Carinae are rarely formed and short lived—there are probably less than a dozen in our galaxy. However compared to the most massive object in the galaxy, Eta Carinae is puny and common. Twenty six thousand light years away from the solar system there exists a truly monstrous space object!
In 1974, Astronomers discovered an astronomical feature which was emitting exotic radio waves in the Sagittarius constellation. The scientists named the feature “Sagittarius A” and set out to determine what it was. Part of the feature seems to be the remnants of a star which had gone supernova. A second part of the feature is a cloud of ionized gas surrounded by an even larger torus of molecular gas. In the middle of Sagittarius A is something which is emitting most of the high energy electromagnetic radiation visible to radio telescopes. The cloud of ionized gas seems to be emptying into it and nearby stars orbit it with greater velocity than stars move anywhere else in the galaxy (in fact the object affects the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars). And yet the space object at the center of Sagittarius A has a diameter of only 44 million kilometers–a bit less than the distance between the middle of the sun and Mercury at its perihelion (when the rocky planet is closest to the sun). By calculating the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars, scientists determined that the mysterious object at the center of Sagittarius A (which they took to calling Sagitarrius A*) has mass of 4.31 million suns (i.e. solar masses). Whatever lies at the center of Sagittarius A–which I probably should have mentioned, is also the center of the Milky Way Galaxy–is smaller in volume than a large star, but has a mass which exceeds by many orders of magnitude even exotic hypergiants like Eta Carina.
Of course the only kinds of discrete objects which we know (or even hypothesize) to be capable of attaining such mass are black holes. It is believed that most (indeed probably all) galaxies have super-massive black hole at their centers. Smaller galaxies have small super massive black holes (forgive the oxymoron) but large galaxies have immense central black holes which can equal billions of solar masses. Radio astronomers have observed plumes of exotic electromagnetic radiation coming from the center of other galaxies, and they wondered where the Milky Way’s galactic center was located. It seems that a supernova near the galactic center blew away a great deal of the dust and gas on which the black hole would otherwise “feed” thereby making the galactic center of the Milky Way less energetic than the active center of farther (e.g. older) galaxies.
The super massive black holes which lie at the center of galaxies may be a result of the accretion of matter around stellar-sized black holes (which could grow quickly in matter-rich galactic cores) but most astrophysicists believe they are instead a primordial feature of the Big Bang around which galaxies themselves coalesced. The ultimate nature of super massive black holes remains unknown and seems to be tied to the nature and shape of our universe.
Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live. Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years. Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go. Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world. When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!
As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years! The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.
The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper. The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas. The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter. Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!
The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear. Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”
This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves. Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.
As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here). I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out. If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.
Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs. Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!
Or at least that was true until now. On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago. By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds. Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail. The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.
Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents. The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like. However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).
Winter is a season when it is best to be reading a book beside a hot stove. Not only are stoves appealing because they are hot–most wood stoves and fire places are also designed to look good. Wood-burning stoves made of cast-iron are among the last devices regularly manufactured in classic gothic-revival shapes (perhaps because the industry is small and specialized enough to charge premium prices for elegance). Many of these stoves appear as though they loaded fuel into themselves and then walked out of the nineteenth century on little cast-iron legs.
To get through the winter (while simultaneously adding to Ferrebeekeeper’s “Gothic” category), here is a gallery of attractive gothic stoves. Some of these are classic stoves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a surprising number are on sale now.
There is something surprisingly comforting about these stoves. Just looking at them makes one think of warmth, shelter, and relaxation. But, with their stern arches, angular faces, and red flames, they also seem hungry, sinister, and hot. This odd juxtaposition must go back a long way for humans who have bedded down beside wood fires for thousands of generations as we crept further into lands too cold for our tropical blood.
These pictures are good for showing the sculptural/architectural beauty of these various stoves, but they are not quite as good at evoking the proper feeling of warmth and security. To get that sense you should imagine a dark shadowy study with the warm orange glow of embers cast across the room. Outside the wind howls over frozen forests and fields of ice but you don’t have to go out there.
Of course you might be reading this from some southern clime, in which case you don’t need to worry about winter’s chill at all. Have a big tropical drink and go to the beach. You can sit in the sun and reflect on how much I envy you.
Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests. Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.
Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent. Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve. The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.
The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands. Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent. In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers. Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.
During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest. Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers. When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters. When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.
Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands. The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.
The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”
When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved. I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me. The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…). The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads. The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.” This seems correct. Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods. Her very name means “the distant one”.
Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon. Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess. Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults. Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC). Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia). It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).
Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might). Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful. In Theogeny, he wrote,
For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate. Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea. Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.
Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light. Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.
Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear). In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess. Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her). Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch. The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms. Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.
The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs). She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance). Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike. The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.
As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm). Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.
I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier. Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following. Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows. Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca. One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!
Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple. This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit. Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day. The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.
Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven). An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree. A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea. She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.
Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea). However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible. Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts. Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.
Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies. The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s. I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).