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What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

We have had a lot of excitement the last couple of weeks, what with Halloween and the midterm election.  Let’s relax a little bit with [checks notes] the horrifying story of a dare gone wrong which lead to the tragic death of a young man? What?? Who chooses this content? Gah!

Well, anyway, this story comes from Australia where, in 2010, teenager Sam Ballard was hanging out with his mates (which is what Australians call friends) and drinking some wine when a small garden slug crawled across his friend’s patio.  In a manner instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with teenage boys, the young men jokingly dared one another to eat the tiny mollusk, and, to show them up, Sam gulped down the tiny creature.  This proved to be an irreversible, fatal error.  Soon Sam’s legs began to hurt and then he fell into a coma for more than a year.  Sam regained consciousness but he was paralyzed and subject to a host of dreadful ailments which ultimately killed him a few days ago.

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There may be a moral to this sad horror story (particularly in the States where, in 2016, 46.4% of the electorate made a seemingly trivial– albeit disgusting–choice which is paralyzing and killing our nation), however there is certainly a scientific explanation.  Slugs can carry rat lungworm disease which is caused by a parasitic nematode called Angiostronjilus cantonensis (crustaceans and frogs can carry the worm as well).  In the happy normal course of existence, the slugs, crabs, and frogs (and thus the nematodes) are eaten by rats which develop lungworm infection in, you know, their lungs.  They excrete droppings infected with lungworms which in turn are eaten by slugs and small invertebrates which are then eaten by rats and frogs. This nematode was originally indigenous to Southeast Asia and nearby Pacific Islands, however as the climate changes and humans move around (taking rats and nematodes with us, apparently) the microscopic worms have spread to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

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I enjoy nature and have a deep appreciation of ecosystems and all of their diverse inhabitants, yet somehow the preceding paragraph makes me want to burn away rats, frogs, slugs, and nematodes with cleansing fire and live like Howard Hughes.  Speaking of fire, if you must eat rats, frogs, garden slugs, small invertebrates, or nematodes,  you should thoroughly cook them first.  I guess that is a really useful and ancient pro tip for success in life.

There is a bigger reason I am telling this upsetting story though.  Strange microscopic bits of one ecosystem have a way of getting into other ecosystems and causing complete havoc. Rat lungworms don’t even really have anything to do with humans, but when mistakenly consumed by us, they do not end up in our lungs but instead in our brains (btw, this is bad news for the nematodes too, which are unable to complete their natural revolting nightmare life-cycle).

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Paleontologists have long speculated that this sort of mix-up is a factor in many mass die-offs and other large scale extinction events.  Fossil evidence for such things however is exiguous, so they have to look for analogous situations in the modern world (like the case of poor Sam Ballard) or go digging in the genomes of modern living organisms.  These genomes often do carry information about a long strange history of fighting off weird viruses, pathogens, and microscopic invaders, but it is not easy to figure out the specifics within the Rube Goldberg-style world of immune cell epigenetics. Zookeepers and stockpeople (and their veterinary pathologists), however, know all about these sorts of dark misconnections from horrible sad incidents which happen all the time in farms and zoos.  I suppose I am bringing this up because I suspect that climate change, near instant international travel, and modern supply chains, will continue to amplify the problem (I have touched base concerning this in my essays about parasitoid wasps, but these may be a touch abstract, so I am telling Sam Ballard’s story).

We could spend more time and money understanding biology properly to get ahead of these trends (which will be greatly magnified in any synthetic ecosystems which we build on Earth or beyond), or we could continue with our current choice of giving all of our resources to corrupt billionaires to hoard.  While we ponder that choice, let us extend our deepest condolences to the Ballards for their terrible loss.  I am also going to clean my kitchen with bleach and maybe take a shower.

 

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If you are like me, you yearn for the color-changing abilities of an octopus or a flamboyant cuttlefish. It’s going to be a long time before we have such capabilities ourselves, but surely technology can let us change the color of our surroundings and effects without repainting them. For a while now, the great laboratories and technology gurus have been promising us color-changing paint–where you walk into a room and turn a dial to change the wall color from green to pink to yellow to blue. I had a friend who shot some ads for GE who swore that this technology was about to hit markets (although since those ads were ten years ago, I am starting to have my doubts).

The Mood Ring!

The Mood Ring!

What we do have is color changing chemicals which alter their tone based on temperature or light. The compounds that change color based on temperature were used for “mood-rings” back in my parents’ day.  Then by the time I was a kid in the 80’s we had light-sensitive polymers.

Zartan, the ultra-mercenary

Zartan, the ultra-mercenary

There was a GI Joe toy–Zartan the super mercenary–which was featured in a series of jaw-dropping animated commercials. In the ads, Zartan was a color-changing mercenary with super-ninja skills–a formidable chameleon of death! However the actual doll looked more like a middle-aged professional wrestler heading off to KISS night at Fire Island. Also Zartan did not change color very rapidly. One of my friends had the figurine and it engendered lots of dubious phrases like “look his arm is already turning a little bit gray….I’m sure of it.” Zartan’s legacy was not dissimilar from that of “The Diving Dolphin” a way to teach kids that ads do not necessarily reflect reality.

Anyway, all of this is to introduce the fact that I won a minor bet with my roommate! In a fog of victory, I jokingly asked for a jet (assuming that this was a way to permanently dismiss the subject) but she went online and bought me a super-awesome color-changing toy plane! It has been sitting next to me at the office as the seasons change and the Heating/Air-Conditioning goes haywire in various colleague-enraging ways. Here, therefore are actual photos of this astonishing color changing jet still in its original packaging.

Neutral Jet

Neutral Jet

The jet’s ambient color at neutral office temperatures is bright mauve. When the pilot flies his craft into the cold temperature of the upper atmosphere (or alternately, into the freezer next to the frozen peas) the plane turns dark puce and then dark brown!

Cold Jet

Cold Jet

Flying out of the freezer, this experimental craft next landed on the sweltering environs atop of a huge mug of hot coffee. Soon the brown faded back to purple and then to blotchy magenta, and finally to pure US Air Force gray.

Hot Jet!

Hot Jet!

Mattel really outdid itself–this is a great toy! Zartan would be green with envy…eventually…well, maybe a little bit by his elbow? Let’s hope GE gets its act together so we can change our walls from bright magenta to gray to chocolate brown. That will be a future worth having!

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.

earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

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People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

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All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

No Future World

The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

Chang'e

Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

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The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

Today is the last day of the Mid-Autumn festival of year 4707, the year of the metal tiger.  Happy mooncakes to you and your family! Go out and stroll beneath the paper lanterns tonight and enjoy a festival over 3000 years old which was introduced by moon worshippers of the Shang dynasty. Look up at the moon glowing in the autumn sky and ponder the sad strange fate of Chang’e and her rabbit.

A little boy looks at a Chang'e Lantern

I can never hope to live up the to the moon’s devotees from ancient dynastic China, but I do wish to celebrate lunar beauty and meaning. Therefore I have selected the following poem from a Tang Dynasty Literary Master. Be forewarned though, Chinese literature is always heartbreakingly sad.

 

On the Festival of the Moon to Sub-official Zhang

Han Yu

The fine clouds have opened and the River of Stars is gone,
A clear wind blows across the sky, and the moon widens its wave,
The sand is smooth, the water still, no sound and no shadow,
As I offer you a cup of wine, asking you to sing.
But so sad is this song of yours and so bitter your voice
That before I finish listening my tears have become a rain:
“Where Lake Dongting is joined to the sky by the lofty Nine-Doubt Mountain,
Dragons, crocodiles, rise and sink, apes, flying foxes, whimper….
At a ten to one risk of death, I have reached my official post,
Where lonely I live and hushed, as though I were in hiding.
I leave my bed, afraid of snakes; I eat, fearing poisons;
The air of the lake is putrid, breathing its evil odours….
Yesterday, by the district office, the great drum was announcing
The crowning of an emperor, a change in the realm.
The edict granting pardons runs three hundred miles a day,
All those who were to die have had their sentences commuted,
The unseated are promoted and exiles are recalled,
Corruptions are abolished, clean officers appointed.
My superior sent my name in but the governor would not listen
And has only transferred me to this barbaric place.
My rank is very low and useless to refer to;
They might punish me with lashes in the dust of the street.
Most of my fellow exiles are now returning home –
A journey which, to me, is a heaven beyond climbing.”
…Stop your song, I beg you, and listen to mine,
A song that is utterly different from yours:
“Tonight is the loveliest moon of the year.
All else is with fate, not ours to control;
But, refusing this wine, may we choose more tomorrow?”

This translation of Han Yu’s poem is by Brynner. The full Chinese version is available here.  Han Yu was the foremost man of letters of the Tang Dynasty. The Indiana Companion asserts that in the Chinese cannon he is “comparable in stature to Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe”.

Han Yu

Eshu

Eshu is a deity worshiped in West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America (particularly Brazil).  To his followers, he is the god of choice and change.  He goes by many names, being known in different places (by people of different faiths) as Exu, Eleggua, Esu, Kalfu, Elegbara, Elegba, Legba, and Eleda.  The mayhem and creative tumult which accompanied the conquest and development of the new world spread his worship far beyond the lands of the Yoruba and the Gbe (the area around the gulf of Benin) where he was first venerated.  To the Yoruba he was a powerful and beautiful young man with magnificent endowments, however, his appearance varies from place to place.  In Louisiana, as “Papa Legba” he is a wise old black man with a staff (who loves toys).  In Haiti, as Kalfu, he frequently takes the form of red demon.  He is imagined as a red youth with a trident by Umbanda practitioners in Brazil.

Exu

Perhaps Eshu’s protean nature has been responsible for his success in many different religions and faiths.  These multifarious guises certainly suit his nature, for Eshu is a trickster and a shapeshifter.  When the Supreme Being, Olodumare, apportioned power to the respective gods and spirits, it* asked each one where they would go.  The various deities answered in accordance with their nature: one said “the air,” another answered “the sea,” some asked to be allowed into the human heart, while others clamored for battle and war.  Only Eshu had the intelligence and temerity to answer “I want to go wherever I will.”  His insightful answer meant that there is no place he is denied.  He speaks all languages of both gods and mortals and is free to break any rule.

Papa Legba kit--available online!

Eshu’s symbols are the crossroad, the gate, the key, the trident, and the door.  He is associated with the colors red and black.  Sometimes he is shown with a red feather or a nail in his forehead.  He is in charge of divine communication and must be called on first if one wishes to have contact with the numinous.  Eshu’s voodoo manifestation, Papa Legba is very specifically a gatekeeper to the spirit world.  In Brazilian Cantabile, Eleggua controls all doors and must be appeased so that he doesn’t open up your home to outsiders.  His fluid, omnipresent nature is most apparent in stories from the Yoruba and Gbe faiths of Africa.  To his African worshipers, he is the deity of traveling, fate, fortune (and misfortune), and of death.  His harsh lessons were one of the few true paths to illumination and positive spiritual transfiguration for the Yoruba and the Gbe.

My favorite story about Eshu illustrates his nature as clearly as it can be explained (and reveals a great truth about humankind).  Eshu painted half of his body black and half red.  Half of his garments were crimson, and half were pure black.  Thus attired, he walked down a street running through the lands of his followers.  Half of his people saw him as a powerful red deity, while the other half saw him as a beautiful black god.  Soon the worshipers were arguing about what they had seen, then they were fighting, and finally the machetes came out and they were killing each other.  Neighbors hacked apart former neighbors in a holy war about the nature of their god.

Appropriately the myth has two endings.  In one, Eshu returned to his followers and showed them what he had done.  His lesson was a harsh but effective way of teaching humans that their beliefs are dependent on their perspective.  His worshipers learned that failure to keep an open mind can lead to violence and tragedy.  In the second version of the myth, he looked down on the carnage he had caused and laughed at how easily humans are led astray.  Then he turned his back and went elsewhere, leaving his followers to their slaughter.

(*Olodumare, the supreme being of the Yoruba religion, stands beyond and above gender.)

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