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This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Hopefully you enjoyed the 2022 Winter Olympics! Whatever you may have thought about the participants or the hosts (or winter sports in general), I don’t think anybody could complain that the Beijing competitions lacked old-school Olympic drama. Now that I have had a relaxing fortnight of watching the contest (on the sofa, as far from winter as I can get), I will try to blog more regularly! First of all, let’s get to some overlooked news from a few weeks ago.

The good news of the world tends to get overlooked either because it is quotidian, or because it is esoteric/perplexing (with equally incomprehensible ramifications). This news bulletin definitely falls into the latter category! Remember previous posts about the National Ignition Facility, a colossal laser array at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which is experimenting with alternate methods of initiating nuclear fusion? There has been a update or two since I first wrote about the place a dozen years ago (sigh), but thus far the lab has not produced the desired results. Suddenly, however, events on the ground are moving more swiftly.

The National Ignition Facility attempts to bypass costly and difficult mechanisms to reach nuclear fusion (like, you know, setting off nuclear fission bombs or building magnetic doughnuts the size of Malta) by concentrating a prodigious amount of energy at a tiny nuclear fuel capsule by means of an array of 192 super lasers all aimed at the tiny capsule (you should maybe imagine that this is being explained by someone with chaotic white hair and a German accent). Thus far, progress has been slow and incremental (at best). Four weeks ago, however, the researchers changed the size and shape of the capsule, and they achieved a new milestone on the road to nuclear ignition: a burning plasma, in which the fusion reactions themselves are the primary source of heating in the plasma.

In some ways this was the goal of the National Ignition Facility–to get more energy out of their process than they put into it. However, now that the experiments are starting to truly pay off, scientists will be working even harder to maximize energy output and efficiency and further optimize the encouraging results. Sadly, this potentially world-changing news, has received limited media attention (aside from within the pages of, you know, Nature and Ferrebeekeeper), however, I have a feeling that much more news will be forthcoming from Livermore. Hopefully some of this news will capture the public attention since prodigious energy breakthroughs are exactly what we need to break free of the prison of fossil fuel consumption which world society remains trapped within. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, but for now, for the first time in a while we can at least fantasize of a world of abundant cheap energy which does not cause environmental devastation.

OK. the fantasizing is over, now go back to watching Russia use oil and gas to kick Germany (and its EU underling partners) around. Oh, maybe keep an eye on the rising global temperature too. Gee whiz, why aren’t we spending more money on ignition research?

The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa)

Today’s news featured a story which I wasn’t expecting at all in 2022–a new species of primate has been identified in the Mekong region! Actually the new langur was discovered in 2020 (when it was duly reported by the BBC) but the news did not make it to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of newly discovered species until now thanks to circumstances of the wider world. Indeed, the endearing Popa langur was not alone: there were 224 newly discovered species on the list released by the conservation group. The list highlights the need to protect biodiversity in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) where new species are still being discovered. Ferrebeekeeper has previously posted about the saola and iridescent snake for similar reasons (you should look at those posts since they rhapsodize about the mysterious hinterlands of Indochina, which are home to all sorts of mysterious and compelling creatures). Speaking of new snakes, this year’s WWF report also included a bright orange snake that lives on slugs!

The new langur species was identified by whiskers which point forward and by broad white circles around its clever eyes…oh and by DNA (in fact the species was originally discovered and collected in the 19th century, but nobody properly identified the bones at Britain’s Natural History Museum as belonging to a new monkey species until now). Unfortunately this “new” primate is already in pretty deep trouble and scientists estimate the total population to be at 200-300 individuals, most of whom seem to live near Myanmar’s dormant Popa Volcano (an otherworldly location pictured immediately below).

Mount Popa also features a fetching monastery

It is easy to wring our hands about the fate of these amazing new rainforest organisms, since they may well disappear forever…right after we have learned they exist. Myanmar, in particular, is going through a destructive era in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat. Yet the pristine forests of Southeast Asia (along with their ghost monkeys, iridescent snakes, and giant catfish) have lasted this long thanks to their remoteness and to the customs and lifestyles of the people who live there. And the national governments are not universally dedicated to economic extraction over all else (Vietnam in particular is serious about protecting its ecological treasures–like their astonishing giant softshell turtles). The rest of us need to find a way to help out. There are wonders in the Mekong jungle (and I never even told you about the new succulent bamboo species).

Boy, the holidays sort of feel like a super-fun carnival ride that abruptly stops and tosses you out beneath an icy highway overpass in the middle of nowhere–which is to say, 2022 is officially rolling along now. Pursuant some of last year’s stories, we have a couple of updates: one sad and one uplifting.

Magawa retires after spending five years detecting landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. AKP

The sad update is that the much-lauded hero rat Magawa has retired from retirement and moved up to that great rat-burrow in the clouds. Magawa was a Gambian pouched rat who helped find and disarm 108 unexploded land mines and anti-personnel explosives in the killing fields of Cambodia. The oldest known Gambian pouched rat in captivity lived to be eight years old, and great Magawa too was eight when he passed away last weekend. His glowing obituary in the New York Times (!) extolled his work (and, by extension, the heroic work of Belgian NGO APOPO which runs the “heroRAT” initiative to save lives and limbs from forgotten weapons of yesteryear). We will not forget his work (indeed some…or maybe lots…of people will have entire lives because of it) and we should also remember what great things are possible when we collaborate with our animal friends. Requiescat (requiesrat?) in pacem, Megawa, and thank you!

The other (much happier) news is that the Webb Space telescope has fully deployed. The telescope launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas (2021) and ever since then it has been unfurling huge, sensitive, delicate components by means of robot manipulators in the cold (yet not cold-enough) darkness of space. My roommate’s brother was an engineer on the telescope, and he said that if the telescope’s mirror (a 6.5 meter (21 foot) gold-plated beryllium hexagon) were expanded to the the size of the United States, no part of it would be more than a meter or so tall (or, to be less poetic, its surface is nano-engineered to exquisite and inhuman smoothness). The infrared telescope must be kept extremely cold (50 Kelvin or −369.7 °F) in order to accurately measure long infrared waves. Since no coolant would last long enough to satisfy mission requirements, this has involved building an ingenuous array of radiators connected to a ponderous sunshield apparatus the size of a tennis court (but made of many layers of meticulously engineered super-plastic each the thickness of a human hair). The sunshield and the telescope mirror were too large to be placed in the rocket payload capsule when assembled. Therefore it was necessary to assemble them in space, far away from the contaminants and perils of low Earth orbit…and far away from any possible help if anything went wrong. It was NASA’s most complicated deployment yet (by quite a lot, apparently) and if anything went wrong, humankind’s great 10 billion dollar eye to look at the universe would be completely ruined. Mercifully, the deployment was a success and the incredible telescope is now undergoing calibration as it travels to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) away from Earth orbit.

It is still several months (or more) before we receive the first data and images back from the telescope, but the most harrowing stage of the mission has now passed. Ferrebeekeeper will keep you updated, but the telescope is already an astonishing achievement which has greatly advanced material science, optics, robotics, and sundry other disciplines! Mabe 2022 is already looking up (even if it is currently 265 Kelvin here in Brooklyn right now).

Humankind has finally reached up and touched the sun–well, figuratively anyway, by means of NASA’s Parker solar probe. The spacecraft is the fastest human-created object ever made (so far) and travels at a blistering 532,000 kilometers per hour (330,000 mph). Since its launch in 2018, it has been circling closer and closer to the sun, and yesterday mission controllers announced that the craft had finally flown through the corona of the star (which can reach toasty temperatures of one million degrees Kelvin (1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit)). Fortunately the upper atmosphere portion of the sun which the craft flew through was a mere 2500 degrees Fahrenheit and the crafts stout carbon shielding protected its sensitive instruments just fine.

During its time in the hot seat (which actually occurred back in April, but which is just being announced now), the Parker solar probe sampled solar particles and analyzed the sun’s magnetic fields so that scientists can try to understand more about the fundamental dynamics of stellar physics. The probe will continue to circle the sun during the course of its seven year mission and should provide ample material for physicists to analyze.

Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

Remember back at the height of the pandemic, when the Chinese Yutu-2 rover discovered green blobs on the dark side of the moon? Well, if you somehow don’t remember that, here is my blog post from last year (spoiler, the blobs were lunar rocks). I mention this because the Yutu-2 lunar rover (which I am going to start fully translating as “Jade Rabbit 2” so it sounds less like a ballet dress) is now making international waves with a new discovery–a strange gray cube evocatively designated as 神秘小屋 “magic secret little hut.”

Courtesy of the Chinese space agency, here is a picture of this mysterious lunar object.

Wow! It, um, does look comparatively more like a magic secret little hut (or any sort of outbuilding, really) than the rest of the lunar regolith. As I write this, Jade Rabbit 2 is heading towards the mystery feature, so we should have a better answer about the lunar cube shortly. Based past Jade Rabbit discoveries, I am going to go on record and opine that this is a rock.

However a large square boulder is hardly a disappointment. There are no glaciers (currently) on the surface of the moon eroding erratics and carrying them around, so how did it form and get where it is? If, as seems likely, it was the result of a lunar impact event, then perhaps it can teach us something new about lunar basalt?

Finally, what can the Chinese teach us about drumming up space-exploration support with crazy names and press releases? Their square boulder has made international headlines (in an age of omicron and Olympics controversy!) just because it has a jazzy designation. Maybe we should start giving more space objects Chinese names (a development which is undoubtedly on its way, anyhow). We will keep our eyes on this lunar cube, in the off chance that little gray elves come out and try to sell strange lunar goods to Jade Rabbit. Off-world exploration doesn’t just teach us things: it is fun!

Today we have some exciting news from out there in the solar system [checks notes] er, excuse me, I guess I mean “in there” in the solar system, since today’s news concerns from the planet closest to the sun. Yet, even though it is first, Mercury is shockingly unknown compared to the other planets of the solar system. This past Friday (October 1st 2021), the joint ESA/JAXA space mission BepiColombo (which launched back in 2018) finally made it to the innermost world. Since 2018, the transfer module has been slaloming around Earth and Venus in order to make it to Mercury. Indeed, the mission is named after the brilliant Italian astrophysicist who first proposed interplanetary gravity assist maneuvers as a mechanism for altering the velocity and trajectory of interplanetary spacecraft. BepiColombo took the picture at the top of this post, a view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere taken at a distance of about 2,420 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the world.

In 2025, the spacecraft will deploy two orbiters to truly comprehensively map Mercury and attempt to unlock the mysteries of the planet’s ancient face. Mercury’s surface seems to be made of a very dark lava which has been bombarded by meteorites for the last several billion years. Although Mercury is dinky in volume (smaller than some of the solar system’s moons) it is quite dense and presumably contains a metallic core suitable for a much larger planet. Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly, for anyone who lives here) the densest planet in the solar system is Earth!

Not since the end of the Messenger mission has Mercury been the thrilling center of attention in astronomy. I can hardly wait for subsequent discoveries about the fast, hot, tiny planet. Some of the secrets of the making of the solar system have been locked away on the little world, waiting billions of years for the right orbiter to come along.

Vanilla Ice on 10/1/90 in Minneapolis, Mn. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Back in college I took a course on planetary and atmospheric dynamics. Although I don’t recall the course as well as I should (the class was extremely mathematical for my taste), one concept which has remained with me is is “albedo”–how well the planetary surface reflects solar radiation back into space. Albedo was a strange wild card in everyone’s computer models of planetary temperature and climate. Small changes in planetary albedo could lead to big temperature changes across the globe (as say when high-albedo ice sheets melt or when reflective white clouds form). Albedo isn’t just important in astrophysics: how well a surface reflects or absorbs radiant energy has engineering and economic implications down here at a human scale as well.

Hmm

This awkward lede is an attempt to contextualize the potentially enormous importance of today’s color-themed topic. Researchers at Purdue University have invented a very, very bright shade of white paint. The color is so white that it reflects 98.1 percent of visible light. The color (which lacks a name, but should be called something like “great white”, “polar bare”, or “super dazzle”) is so radiant that surfaces painted with the compound are cooler than the ambient temperature of things around them. It is the polar opposite (snicker) of the ultra-black developed a few years ago.

The secret to this color is a molecular engineering trick. Barium sulfate is a safe and commonly used white pigment for makeup and coated papers. Engineers created a range of microscopically sized barium sulfate particles and then combined these differently sized particles into a single coating. The result was this glistening mirror white.

white glitter christmas abstract background

Now I can’t show you this color in a photo (since it wouldn’t make any sense on the luminous medium of your computer screen), but I get the sense that, like that super black, it has an unearthly look to it in the real world. Speaking of the real world there is no news yet on practical or saleable applications of the incredible ultra white (which makes me think it might prove hard to produce at scale). Yet the fact that it exists is exciting for engineers (and artists too). Let’s get to work making some more of this stuff so we can find out if is any good…and so we know whether we can solve our climate problems by painting Nevada and the Kumtag Desert shiny white!

Dirona albolineata (photographed by http://www.naturediver.com)

It has been far too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured any miraculous molluscs! Therefore, today we are going to return to a timeless favorite topic and feature a predatory nudibranch sea slug that looks like a rogue lace jabot. This is Dirona albolineata (a.k.a the alabaster nudibranch) a predatory slug which lives in the cold rich waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska down to San Diego. The translucent slug grows to a length of 18 centimeters (7 inches) and hunts tiny invertebrates of the coastal zone such as bryozoans, little arthropods, hydroids, ascidians, and, um, lesser mollusks.

The beautiful little milky slug is generally whitish but specimens have been found which were pale pink, peach, or lavender. As a simultaneous hermaphrodite, the slug has an unusual mating ritual where he/she/it meets another alabaster mollusk and both parties copulate both as male and female (they each fire a reproductive dart into the other’s body and both parties leave the union fertilized). The leaf like appendages upon the slug’s body are known as ceratae. These scales are protective and serve as armor or as a diversion (under extreme duress, the snail can jettison the twitching scales in hopes of diverting a predator), however they also greatly increase the snail’s body area and help respiration/gas exchange. Or to be more plain, the ceratae are like a cross between gills and plate mail for this translucent hermaphroditic mollusc.

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