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Happy Losar! No—I didn’t hurl a confusing insult at you–today is the Tibetan New Year Festival “Losar.” Although it is putatively a Buddhist version of the Chinese New Year, Losar predated the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and it is on a somewhat different place in the calendar than Chinese New Year. According to scholars, the festival traces its origin back to a late winter/early Spring incense festival of the ancient Bon religion (which has so indelibly colored the Buddhism of Tibet).
Losar is also known as Shambhala day to adherents of Tibetan practices who believe it should feature mindfulness exercises and meditation (as well as other spiritual rituals and self-care practices). As with Chinese New Year, there are elemental animals which represent every year: and they are more-or-less the same as in the Chinese calendar, but with a different flavor. For example, instead of calling this year, “the year of the fire rooster.’ Tibetans call it “the Year of the firebird” which is the same…and yet oddly different.
Losar began on Monday February 27th and ends March 1st, so enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy the year of the Fire rooster/Fire Bird.
What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets? Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible. The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun. It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy). Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement. These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us! The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky! It is a pretty compelling picture! Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.
I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years. Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).
Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics). However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.
Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp). Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh! I know where I want to escape to next February!
When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire. It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations. We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III. The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.
Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment. It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous). Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:
Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.
It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).
Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone. This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it. His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans. To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are. What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses. Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.
I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype. In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is. In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google. Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217. By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?). It already doesn’t make sense!
As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”. Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle. Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention. The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble. And where does that leave us?
Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze. The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns. However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket. The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth. They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!
I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago. Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.
OK…for a second Valentine’s Day post, I wanted to post a beautiful crown with a heart at the center, however, although that concept certainly exists in cartoons and illustrations…and as endless rhinestone costume crowns (see example above), the actual item proved difficult to find. Yet, in the end, I did find such a crown. This is the Milford Haven Ruby Tiara, a real golden tiara with a real heart shaped ruby. It has found its way to the United Kingdom, but its history starts in Russia and runs through European nobility.
Here is a quote which describes the head spinning history of the piece: “A gold tiara in kokoshnik form, set with faceted and cabochon rubies and diamonds in the form of stars and crescents, fleurs-de-lys, trefoils and a central radiant heart. Several of the motifs can be detached and worn as brooches. Made by Bolin, for the Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch, grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, for his bride Sophie de Merenberg, Countess Torby. It passed to his daughter, Countess Nadejda of Torby, who married Prince George of Battenberg (later the second Marquess of Milford Haven).”
Whatever the provenance, it is a splendiferous headdress! The ruby heart is beautiful, but the overall balance of the composition is the real treat. It looks like a magical spirit garden in heaven. Who knew something so ostentatious could be so subtle?
Happy Valentine’s Day! The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves. The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol. In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus. Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan). In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.
To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.
Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her. Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love. Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace. They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands. Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!
Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus. All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly). Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me. Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive. Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.
In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life. Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!
Sad news mars this bleak wintry day. The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away. Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air. Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”. His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed. In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!
With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold. At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world. Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933. After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.
A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”
Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him. Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures. Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).
Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer. The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old. Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians). After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish. Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.
For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates? It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna! Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium. Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish. Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat quite carefully. With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million. Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!
We haven’t had much of a winter so far…which is fine with me. I dislike the cold part of the year and I was happy today when it was unexpectedly sixty and I got to bike in to work. And yet there is supposed to be a blizzard tomorrow!
So, to celebrate the season of snow and ice here is a little gallery of crowns which are meant to resemble snow and ice. Some of them are really pretty—especially the ones which are actually made of icicles (which I have always loves for their otherworldly frightful beauty).
I wish that more of them looked like snowflakes though—they really have their own disturbing alien allure. Anyway, I hope you are inside enjoying a bog mug of your favorite hot beverage and nestled by a fire. And for my tropical and southern hemisphere readers, why do you guys never invite me to come visit?
Happy blizzard. I’ll see you all tomorrow.
Everybody loves squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses…and we all love all of the crazy belemnites, ammonites, nautiloids, and orthocones which came before them. But, if you are like me, you have probably been sitting around wondering what came before that. How old are cephalopods, really, and what were the first ones like? Yet, although cephalopods are amply represented in the fossil record from the Ordovician onward, their very earliest origins are shrouded in controversy and mystery. Although there are various fossils which might be cephalopods (or their antecedents) at present the oldest animals to be indisputably classified as cephalopods are the Ellesmerocerida. This order of nautiloids flourished at the end of the Cambrian and into the Ordovician 9approximately half a billion years ago).
Although they were definitely cephalopods, the Ellesmerocerida were somewhat mysterious themselves. They were typically quite small—or even minute. They seemingly had ten arms–although this is a conjecture based on where the muscles attached to their shells (and based on what we know of their descendants). The soft parts of the first cephalopods were not preserved and so we don’t exactly know.
Their shells reveal close-spaced septa–closed off interior spaces within the shell, which provided buoyancy. The Ellesmerocerida also had relatively large ventral siphuncles—tissues which pass longitudinally through the septa to allow buoyancy control. So the first cephalopods we know about were more or less built on the same line as the subsequent ones (until belemnites internalized the shells). I wonder what else we will find out about the origins of this fascinating group of animals as we learn more about paleontology.
Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China. This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions). The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one. I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb. The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.