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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!
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post. Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics. Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal). The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain). The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab. The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.
Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.
The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall. Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional. So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake. As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come. However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them). The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression. The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.
I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning. Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame. The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden). Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things. If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.
Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here. I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit. Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s. I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.
I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon. Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing. The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.
Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms. The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”. The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”
The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means. The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered. However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.
Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms. When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever). A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs). Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).
Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim. When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar. So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.
Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!
Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass. It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Arda, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.
Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made. In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts. Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral). The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back. A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America). This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war. The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.
During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident. Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
Today it was reported that HARPS, (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) a device operated from the European Southern Observatory’s station atop Mount la Silla in the Andes, has discovered 50 new exoplanets (planets which orbit stars other than the sun). Sixteen of these new planets are “super-earths” rocky planets with a mass from 1 to 10 times that of our planet. One of these newly-discovered planets, HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only three-and-a-half times the mass of the Earth and it seems like it is located at the edge of the habitable zone, the orbital belt around a star where water can exist in liquid form. This is only the second exoplanet discovered within the habitable zone, the first being Gliese 581 d. Interestingly HARPS has disproved the existence of Gliese 581 g (which I wrote about last year) as a mathematical phantasm–so um, you might want to take that post with a grain of salt. The planet HD 85512 b orbits a star which is is approximately 35 light years from Earth.
In the eight years since the program has started, HARPS has discovered more than 150 exoplanets. HARPS discovers new planets by means of a mind-boggling technology: a spectrograph of stupendous precision is mounted on a 3.6 meter telescope in order to take painstaking observations of numerous nearby stars over a prolonged period of time. A computer program then compares the tiny variances in the light emitted by these stars. Stars with planets orbiting them undergo slight changes of radial velocity as the planets’ gravity tugs lightly at the stellar bodies. These shifts can be measured via Doppler shift and compared against the expected spectrographic signature caused by the stars relative drift toward or away from the observatory. Over many years the computer can thereby model the mass and approximate orbit of planets around stars (considering the math and the precise observations required for such calculations makes my hair stand on end).
Kepler, the NASA exoplanet discovery project uses an entirely different technology which involves measuring changes in brightness caused by the transit of a planet across a star’s glowing face.
One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science. There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen. Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi. She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol
Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.
As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist. Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell. Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet. To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting. His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem. In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks. His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it. Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems. Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans. His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.
Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative). Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity. There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too. The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig! The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable. It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.
That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems. The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”. Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness. Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.
Is Rockman’s art gothic? I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail. There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech. I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”. Life endures and adapts even as the world changes. Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature, but we will need to grow quickly!