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eridanus-river

Eridanus is a large constellation which has been known since ancient times.   The constellation begins in the north (near Orion’s left foot) then winds south across the sky before snaking west towards Cetus the sea monster.  The river of stars which makes up Erdanus then doubles back east and eventually ends far to the south at the border with Hydrus, the water snake.  Because of its antiquity, there is some dispute as to where the name Eridanus came from:  second-century Greek astronomers believed the name indicated the sacred (mythical) river which Phaeton plummeted into after his unhappy attempt to drive the chariot of the sun.   Other etymologists, however, think that the name originated in ancient Mesopotamia where “the star of Eridu” was sacred to the primeval god Enki, lord of the abzu, a mythical abyss filled with all the fresh water in the world.  Eridu was the first known city of Earth, so the name may go back to the origin of civilization.

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Whatever the origins of the name are, the constellation is the site of one of the strangest and most controversial objects in the heavens.  In 2007, astronomers using radio telescopes to survey the universe were astonished to discover nothing.  More specifically they discovered an immense and disconcerting amount of nothing—an enormous void in space time more than a billion light-years in diameter.  The Eridanus supervoid lies between six to 10 billion light-years away and its existence seems to be at odds with current cosmological models.

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

Cosmologists have several schools of thought concerning how the supervoid came into being and what its real nature is.  Because I am having trouble understanding any of these crazy theories, I have provided a rudimentary metaphor for each in blue (which would probably offend cosmologists, if they were reading my blog).

1)      Supporters of the standard model Big Bang theory say the region is colder because of dark energy, a hypothetical form of energy believed to permeate all of space.  If it exists, dark energy uniformly fills otherwise empty space yet interacts with none of the known forces in the universe (save gravity). The void is not empty but is filled with dark energy–which we do not yet understand: just like an empty room would seem empty to the Babylonians (despite being filled with air to us).

2)      A contrary theory proposes that the known universe orbits a supermassive black hole (in the same fashion that galaxies spiral around central black holes). This explanation would explain the “accelerating/expanding” universe as a sort of illusion: objects on the edge of the universe would be orbiting at a greater velocity than objects close to the black hole—a phenomenon which would affect their red shift relative to us.  Of course anything that got too close to the black hole in the void would be swallowed to an unknown doom into a black hole with the mass of another universe.  The universe is like an old vinyl record being spun around by a black hole in the center which is enormous beyond comprehension.  The expansion of the universe is an illusion caused by our limited perspective in such a scenario.   

3)      Laura Mersini-Houghton, a cosmologist who theorizes about the multiverse, believes that the supervoid is the imprint of another universe beyond our own.  Quantum entanglement has allowed us to see a shadow of this parallel universe in the form of the great empty spot located in Eridanus.  ??? Um, there are other universes out there which interact with our own in unknown ways which cause big holes (or maybe windows).

4)      Conservative astronomers speculate that the empty spot is an anomaly of the cosmic texture of the early universe.  Phase transition after the big bang resulted in heterogeneous distribution of matter. The universe is like a loaf of bread—sometimes it just has big holes in it because of the way it came into being.  

5)      The radiometric finding method by which the void was discovered is flawed.  The area only seems anomalously “cold” (in terms of EM emissions) because of a relatively hot ring of emissions surrounding it. The void doesn’t exist.  It was a mistake in observation.

6)      Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined. Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined.

I’ll be honest here.  Since I don’t have a radio telescope array or a degree in theoretical physics, these ideas are pretty hard to assay.  They are also wildly divergent.  I am therefore going to evaluate them aesthetically/emotionally (i.e. uselessly) in the following manner.  The first idea has the support of the astrophysics community, but is unsatisfactory until we have a more-than-theoretical understanding of dark energy (which could be forthcoming because of our discovery of the Higgs Bosun).  The second idea seems like it could be tested with mathematical modeling and astronomical observation (which so far seem to indicate there is no giant black hole in the middle of everything).  The third idea seems insane—and yet I have always intuitively felt that there are universes beyond this one (I’m sorry to be so guilty of such magical/hopeful thinking).  The fourth and fifth ideas seem quite plausible because they are boring (although why is the universe leavened like bread? Or why does it contain large relatively hot rings?).  The sixth idea is always applicable to everything.

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Of course all this speculation may all be moot:  a more recent survey of the southern sky from a radio telescope in Australia suggests that there might be a much larger 3.5 billion light-year-wide void in the known universe.  That would certainly steer us back toward more conservative models of the universe, while at the same time leaving us with yet more questions.

The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions.  To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols.  Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!

Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background).  This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem.  The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.”  There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism.  the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.

The Gadsden Flag

Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background.   Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag.  That rattlesnake is not kidding around.  It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake.  Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem.  In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships.  The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.

The First Navy Jack Flying on the USS Kitty Hawk

After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal.  In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later.  Franklin famously did not care for the eagle.  Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):

For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder.   on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).

Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating.  Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem.  These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole.  Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).

Orcinus orca

Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above.  There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas!  It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!]  Happy Fourth!

Do not pet this animal.

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