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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!
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.
I promised to write about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book which I am planning on reading this year (after bouncing off of its deep moral ambiguity once before). However before we get to talking about great literature and right and wrong and how to cynically manipulate people, let’s indulge in some completely frivolous daydreaming.
Longtime readers know that one of my favorite concepts for the not-so-distant future is the establishment of a floating colony in the skies of Venus. A variety of considerable factors make this seem more attainable than the Martian colony which everyone is always talking about (plus I like tropical swamps better than Arctic deserts).
Alas, I am not an engineer, and I cannot bring my dream closer to reality with a slide rule and a spreadsheet full of atmospheric measurements and rocket payloads…or with a thoughtful treatise about making plastics out of the chemicals present in Venus’ thick atmosphere…or with mention of the seemingly inexhaustible thermal energy on its surface. Yet I am imaginative, and perhaps I can share a powerful passing fantasy with you. The other day, while browsing goodness knows what on the internet, I came across the picture above and it struck me forcefully as a perfect structural component of Mary Rose or Constance [astronomical convention dictates that all features on Venus be named after women, so I decided to name my cities after my grandmothers…at least until I know what my billionaire partner wishes to call things]. I had to share the image with you, even though I have lost the real context of the actual inflatable structure 9avionic saftey equipment maybe? That doesn’t actually seem so far off).
First I imagined that this is the lifting body of the colony, which would be suspended underneath…but then it occurred to me that it might be the city (since breathable Earth atmosphere mixtures of gases float on the clouds of Venus). or perhaps it is an agricultural pod or a park or a laboratory, or a factory. Who can say what is in the lovely 4/5th torus, until we complete more of the schematics? At the moment, it is a concept piece…like the whole colony, but the world is filled with clever people, and some of them read this blog. let’s keep dreaming big! Imagine this sparkling with lights as a huge yellow storm boils up beneath and a cloud of drones and gyrocopters approach from a nearby fleet of zeppelin buildings…
The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well. It makes you wonder about 2017.
However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites. Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well). You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.
Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).
Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets). His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.
Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison. His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.
Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).
Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust. His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.
Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American. His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).
Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016). Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out. Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut. A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.
Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.
Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion). I have trouble with some of these concepts. After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.
and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year. I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations! As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above). This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way). Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year. For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.
I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard. Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful. I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.
Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia). Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks. Indeed, there might be another metaphor here. We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.
Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb. The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it. I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017. I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you. Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.
Ferrebeekeeper has a great love of space-themed art. Yet the beginnings of western art as we know it today were not about space, but instead about religion. Christian iconography dominated: the heavens were not the literal heavens but instead the supernatural …uh…actually, never mind. This is a fresco by Giotto from the Arena Chapel. Giotto single-handedly reshaped the classical and medieval precepts of art (and remade our notion of visual culture). The Arena Chapel is his masterwork–a project where Byzantine opulence, Christian devotion, linear perspective, and new Italian realism converged to give birth to the European artistic tradition (although, to be sure, Western art had many grandparents…and lots of weird uncles that were an influence before–and after–Giotto).
Here is the birth of art…showing the birth of Christ, and there, proudly in the center of the composition, right above Jesus and the adoring Magi, is a comet which would not look out of place in nineteen-sixties space art. The flying ball of fire points directly into the manger where the astonished kings (and their even more astonished camels pay homage to the new-born savior who has appeared as a refugee child). It is a beautiful picture–and an unexpected appearance of outer space imagery right at the dawn of the 14th century as art began to manifest itself in familiar fashion.
Since the moon does not orbit the Earth in a perfect circle, the perigee (the closest point that the moon comes in relation to the planet) changes from year to year. Tonight (November 14, 2016) marks the largest “supermoon” seen in six decades. The moon will not appear so large in the sky again until November 25, 2034.
According to ancient Algonquin lore, the full moons of autumn had various sacred names (well, at least according to the Farmer’s Almanac). The full August moon was the “Sturgeon Moon” because the great fish came together to mate at that time. Likewise, the September full moon occurred when the maize ripened and was thus called “the Corn Moon”. After the harvest, when the weather was perfect for hunting, the October full moon was “the Hunter’s Moon”. The full moon of November was known as the Beaver Moon, since it was an ideal time to trap beaver, which were out and about putting their affairs in order before winter (indeed the industrious rodents were nearly exterminated by trappers—but that is another story).
Tonight’s full moon is thus the Beaver Super Moon. You should go out and appreciate it! For who knows what the future will hold? There may be clouds on the night of November 25, 2034 or maybe you will be on a floating Venus colony with me. Maybe cruel Empress Ivanna will have you chained up and working underground, mining the last seams of coal to feed the Earth’s final sputtering machines. Maybe you will just be busy sending pointless administrative files to people.
Enjoy the Beaver Super Moon! Then later this week, in honor of the season, we will get back to talking about turkeys!
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!
As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim. In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures. This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes. Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).
The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math). At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).
Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together. The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission. It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up). The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).
Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries. It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent. Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet? Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!