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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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Do you ever miss the 70s?  That time will never return (although stagflation and oil crunches might make an unexpected comeback from the weird devil’s brew of bad economic and geopolitical policies which we are experimenting with) however there is a more positive reminder of the age of disco in the very heavens themselves.  At present, there are three disco balls in orbit around Earth.  The first and most significant is actually a 70s artifact: LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics Satellite) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 4th 1976.  The 408 kilogram (900 pound) satellite has no electronic components ore even moving parts: it is a brass sphere studded with 426 jewel-like retroreflectors. 422 of these retroreflectors are made from fused silica glass (to reflect visible light), however the remaining 4 are germanium, for infrared experiments.

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Orbiting the entire planet every 225.70 minutes, LAGEOSl is a pretty stupendous piece of space art in its own right, however it was designed for a serious scientific purpose.  Lageos provides an orbiting laser ranging benchmark.  To quote space.com:

Over the past 40 years, NASA has used LAGEOS to measure the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, detect irregularities in the rotation of the planet, weigh the Earth and track small shifts in its center of mass via tiny changes in the satellite’s orbit and distance from Earth.

Measurements made using LAGEOS have also been used to confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity, since measurements made on this scale demonstrate a measurable “frame dragging effect” (which you are going to have to figure out with some help from your favorite physicist).  The satellite also illustrates the Yarkovsky effect, which explains how an object is heated by photons on one side will later emit that heat in a way which slows the object.  This latter effect will eventually cause LAGEOS’ orbit to deteriorate and bring it tumbling to Earth.  Scientists estimate this will happen 8.4 million years from now, so there is still time to contemplate this sphere.  Also there is a small time capsule on board to capture certain scientific truths and human ephemera for the long ages.

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LAGEOS was so useful and proved to be such a success that NASA launched an identical sister craft in 1992 (how did I miss all of these interesting events?).  This still leaves one disco ball satellite unaccounted for.  The final craft is “The Humanity Star” which serves no purpose other than being art.   Launched on January 21st of this year (2018), the humanity star is a regular polygonal solid with 65 triangular sides.  It is made of carbon fiber embedded with enormously reflective panels and is meant to be seen twinkling in the night sky to make humankind collectively reflect on our shared home, the Earth.  The Humanity Star orbits much lower than the LAGEOS satellites.  They are  5,900 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Earth’s surface, whereas the humanity star is only 283.4 kilometers (176.1 miles) away from the planet at its perigree.  It whips around the Earth every 90 minutes on a circumpolar orbit (which means it is visible from everywhere at some point.  You could look up where it is online and go out and find it with fieldglasses.  The object glimmers and shimmers in unusual ways, sometimes appearing as bright as Sirius (the brightest star save for the sun), but usually twinkling like barely visible stars.  The Humanity Star won’t last long—it is scheduled to fall into Earth’s gravity well and burn up in fall of this year, so check it out before it is gone.  The craft was controversial: some serious aerospace mavens objected to launching an object into orbit to serve no purpose other than art, yet, as an artist I am happy to know it is out there.  Maybe go look at it and let me know if it inspires you.

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