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I have lived in my neighborhood for a while now, but it is a place with a lot going on and so I am still constantly surprised to find that I live right next to railroads, department stores, cemeteries, or universities which I didn’t know existed for all of these years.  This sort of thing doesn’t just happen in Brooklyn: it is true for the whole solar system.  Astronomers just discovered the largest mega-structure in the Milky Way Galaxy, a swooping ribbon of hot gas and baby stars now known as “the Radcliffe Wave.”  The wave begins 500 light-years below the Milky Way’s disk at a spot in the night sky around Orion, and runs through the constellations Taurus and Perseus to wind up near the constellation Cepheus (and 500 light years above the galactic plane).

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The Radcliffe Wave is about 9,000 light-years in length–roughly a tenth the diameter of the galaxy–and is though to contain about 800 million stars (as a quick refresher, our own sun has a mass about 333,000 times that of Earth).  Scientists have noticed pieces of the wave before, since it is a hot zone filled with tumultuous stellar nurseries where bright young stars emerge from vast clouds of gas, yet they did not realize it was a continuous ribbon.

The ribbon is relatively close to Earth, too.  To quote João Alves, the co-author of the Nature article about the Radcliffe Wave, “The sun lies only 500 light-years from the wave at its closest point. It’s been right in front of our eyes all the time, but we couldn’t see it until now.” Five hundred light years is not exactly a drive to the strip mall (it is a distance of 4,730,000,000,000,000 kilometers!), but we have been through the Radcliffe Wave 13 million years ago and the solar system is projected to pass into it in again in another 13 million years.

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Astronomers are interested in the wave, but they are even more interested in why is exists to begin with.  Alves speculates that it was created in the same manner that ripples are made in the water of a pond when something exceedingly massive lands in it.  What would be massive enough to make ripples in a galaxy?  Another galaxy? Some sort of black hole biz? A giant hunk of dark matter?  Who knows? (although this older post about giant voids in space might be somewhat instructive in talking about space’s busy neighborhoods too). We only just discovered the Radcliffe Wave and we will have to start working to figure out where it originated and what it means.  After all, we will be there surfing it in a mere 13 million years. Kowabunga, space dudes!

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There are 19 ancient burial mounds in the Russian village of Devitsa.  Archaeologists opened up one of these 2500 year old tombs and you will never believe what they found inside!

Or, well, uh, actually you will believe the contents if you read the news headlines…or are a fan of ancient Greek history…or just follow Pontic steppe archaeology in general (or even read the title of this article), but that doesn’t make the discovery any less extraordinary.  Devitsa lies north of the Black Sea (beyond the borders of present day Ukraine) on the great rolling temperate grassland of Eurasian steppe.  Many cultures have passed through the region over the millennia, but the graves date back to the time of the Scythians–nomadic horse-mounted warriors whose fierce culture flourished between the 8th century and the 3rd century BC.  The Scythians were not exactly an empire–more a lose confederation of wandering tribes (probably of Iranian heritage), but they controlled a hefty swath of Central Asia from the borders of ancient China all the way to the shores of the Black Sea, where they abutted Greek colonies.

The regimented and hierarchical (and patriarchal!) Greeks were scandalized and fascinated by the savage freedoms of the Scythian way of life.  The Greeks looked down on the “barbaric” mounted warriors, yet they also looked up to them.  Greek writing exoticized and romanticized the free-riding Scythian lifestyle and Greek thinkers, writers, and artists incorporated elements of Scythian culture into Greek mythology (and into the Greek weltanschauung).  One of most widely known of these Greek fixations was with “the Amazons” the women warriors of classical mythology.  Amazons were so prevalent in Greek writing and art that the world’s biggest river–in South America!–was later named after the warrior women (and it is rumored other huge modern entities also bear the name).  Historians and scholars have long argued about the extent to which these myths were based on real world exemplars–which brings us back to the tomb excavations at Devitsa.  The most recently opened tomb contained the mortal remains of four Scythian warrior women of different ages.  The graves of a young women (aged 20-25) and of a teenage girl (aged 12 or 13) had been despoiled by robbers, but the graves of two older high-status women (one woman in her early thirties and a woman who died between 40 and 50) were undisturbed.

These latter graves yielded not just iron hooks and weapons but also glass jewelry, a bronze mirror, and a finely wrought gold headdress of gold and iron alloy (pictured above).  The Greeks may have made up a lot of things–like the tale of how Scythians descended from the union of the greatest Greek hero and Echidna, an infamous lady monster–but it seems like fierce and headstrong warrior women were a real phenomena which the Greek colonies of Asia Minor dealt with on a regular basis.  The coast of the Black Sea is the first known location of viniculture and goldsmithing.  The Scyths also seem to have brought cannabis to the classical world via Thrace.  Ancient Greece and the Scythians were at least as closely entwined as Herodotus made them out to be.  It makes one wonder what innovations really came from whom!

 

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Let’s get back to triggerfish! This is Xanthichthys mento, a small triggerfish  (well, for triggerfish, I mean) which grows to a size of 20 cm (11 in) in length and hails from the mighty Pacific Ocean.  This triggerfish has a tiny anxious mouth for eating zooplankton.  Although triggerfish in general delight me, I am highlighting this particular species for three reasons: 1) it’s bright red/blue/yellow color scheme and endearing expression are wonderful; 2) the common/English name of Xanthichthys mento is the “crosshatch triggerfish–what could be more appropriate for artists?; and 3) it is the middle of the night, and I need a quick visual post.  I hope Xanthichthys mento provides a winter splash of color for you! I promise a better post tomorrow!

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Happy 2020!  This first Ferrebeekeeper post of the (de-facto) new decade arrives on January 2nd, a historically glum day, as people leave holiday merriment behind and return to their futile dayjobs.  As far as we can currently tell, the ‘teens were not a good decade.  Not only were there few major scientific or technological breakthroughs (beyond garden-variety “slightly better fuel economy” sorts of things), but, even worse, all of the politically expedient bunts which spineless or feckless leaders have made since the Cold War began to truly catch up to the world’s great democracies.  Again and again, government figures of intellect, probity, and conscience were outmaneuvered by sinister oligarchs and pro-business cartels who used dark money, demagogic tricks, manipulative new technology, and straight-up cheating to thwart the popular will. The decade’s putative bright spot, a roaring bull economy is really a sugar rush made of frack gas and stock buybacks. In the meantime, the dark side of global consumer capitalism becomes more & more painfully evident in the form of desertification, ocean acidification/warming, climate change, and general ecological devastation.

This is all pretty discouraging to face as you go back to pointless drudgery in your horrible open office. Maybe I could have at least listed some of the compelling new tv shows or ranked good-looking celebrities or something?

Well don’t worry! I believe the situation could become much brighter than it presently seems. All is not yet completely lost. The 2020s do not necessarily need to be another lost decade like the teens. By adapting two sensible reforms, we can make the next decade actually good instead of good only for crooked billionaires and their mouthpieces.  But when I say two major reforms, I mean two MAJOR reforms which would change how power and resources are allocated at a society-wide scale. As an American, I am addressing the problems here in America, but I believe these concepts are broadly applicable to democratic societies. The year is already getting longer so I will state these big concepts bluntly and succinctly.

1)  Our broken political system needs to be fixed.  Right now partisan polarization is ripping the country apart.  Even broadly popular common-sense solutions are impossible to implement.  Stunningly, extremists on both sides of the aisle would rather deny the opposite party a victory than do what is best for everyone in the country.   The way to stop this polarization is through ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections and through independent election redistricting.  The current system helps extremists.  Ranked choice voting would make it much more difficult for fringe candidates to be elected.  Independent redistricting would mean that voters choose their political representatives rather than vice versa.  Since polarization would no longer be rewarded, political leaders could work together to gather some of the low-hanging fruit which has been left dangling by all of these sequesters, filibusters, pocket vetoes, hearings, and other scorched-earth political gambits.  Obviously we can’t just implement such a plan instantly (it would be stopped dead by political gridlock).  But if we started using ranked choice voting just for primaries and local elections it would help.  Soon we might start seeing politicians with plans and ideas from both the red and blue parties, instead of these despicable apparatchiks we now have.

2) Public investment needs to be poured into blue sky scientific research, applied research and development, education, and infrastructure.  In the market system, corporations will spend money on things which will make money for them in the immediate future.  Government and universities do the heavy lifting by conducting real research on real things.  The government makes the internet.  Private companies make Netflix.  Since corporate behemoths (ahem…monopolies) have an ever greater say in how money is spent, less money is being spent on science, education, and fundamental real physical systems (transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric grids). R&D, education, and infrastructure are the seed corn of future prosperity.  Right now, corporations are eating that seed corn (in the form of Trump’s stupid tax cuts for the economy’s wealthiest players).  Right now, research scientists–the people whose ideas will keep you from dying horribly of a disease or keep the the future from becoming an unlivable hellscape–are being forced to grind their teeth as some character with an MBA from Sloan or Wharton explains that fundamental scientific research to understand the universe does not meet critical business metrics. I don’t mind busting the budget, but we should at least get something in return for the money.

Of course these two broad objectives things will be hard to accomplish, but I believe they are well within our collective grasp.  Best of all, as things begin to improve, virtuous feedback loops will unlock even further  progress.  2020 will be a hard year as we push against the corruption and failures of the past decade (or two)  but I believe that if we keep these two broad goals in mind, we can make the twenties a roaring success that everyone will talk about with pride and happiness… in a future world which still exists!

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