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There is nothing that Ferrebeekeeper loves more than an enormously ornate 18th century edifice—unless it is a touching story of unification and healing!  This story has all of those things—but it also drives straight through one of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history.

This is the Dresden Frauenkirche, one of the two great churches of Dresden.  The Frauenkirche is Dresden’s great Protestant church: the Catholic church–the Hofkirche of Dresden—has its own history (though it could be argued that both churches form a larger story of faith and schism in Germany especially since Dresden is part of Saxony, which was Martin Luther’s diocese).   At any rate the Frauenkirche was designed by Dresden’s city architect, George Bähr and built between 1726 and 1743.  The defining feature of the church was its 96 meter tall stone dome.  The 12,000-ton sandstone dome rested on eight slender supports, and yet was famous for its solid resilience and strength.  During the 7 Years War, Prussian cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sandstone dome like acorns bouncing off of a church bell.

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Unfortunately, the 20th century saw the advent of more terrible weapons than cannons (and more terrifying German leaders than Frederick the Great). In the final stages of World War II, the Frauenkirche was destroyed by the 1945 Allied fire bombings which burned down Dresden (and killed 25,000 of its citizens). All that was left was a pile of rubble and melancholy broken walls which looked for all the world like a Friedrich painting. The Cold War also took its toll on Germany and Soviet hegemonic aggression prevented the nation from uniting and fully rebuilding.  East Germany was unable to fulfill its potential or govern itself (on the opposite side of the Cold War, the United States was and is the dearest friend and ally of Germany…although maybe it is best not to look too closely into the circumstances of that firebombing or ask a lot of questions about our own recent embrace of the crazed strongman theory of misgovernment).

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So, for half a century the Frauenkirche was a nightmarish burnt fragment—an ever-present revenant reminding the people of Saxony of the terrible destruction of the war.   It became a locus of the German peace movement (and a site for passive resistance to the East German government). Then, in the nineties, circumstances in Germany changed very quickly.  Reunification brought forth a project to rebuild the Frauenkirche.  The original church was destroyed, but the original blueprints were not.  In 1992 construction began on the new Frauenkirche.   In an effort to recreate the church as thoroughly as possible, chemists tested burnt remnants, historians pored over ancient receipts, archivists collected endless photos and artworks, and the citizens of Dresden saved pfennigs in order to pay for the undertaking.  About 3800 stones from the original church were recovered and used.  The old stones have a patina of age…and they were darkened by the fire.

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The project was finished in 2005 (ahead of schedule) and today the Frauenkirche looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1744 or 1944, except the smattering of original stones give it a speckled appearance like a magnificent baroque toad.  Touchingly, the golden cross at the apex of the tower was funded officially by “the British people and the House of Windsor” and wrought by a British goldsmith whose father was a pilot in the bombing.

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If you have ever tried to fix or restore anything, you will recognize that this is a monumental accomplishment which indicates the proficiency and excellence of German manufacture (not that anyone had any doubts anyway). Even more importantly, the story is a reminder to everyone that reunification, rebirth, and rebuilding to Golden Age glory are entirely possible.  The full story of the church however also remains to remind us of the horror of war and the tragic history of mistakes which caused so much devastation.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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 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!

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Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting appropriate for the grim depths of winter. This is Klosterfriedhof im Schnee (Monastery Graveyard in the Snow) painted by the melancholy master of German romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich (whose foreboding works keep appearing on this blog). The melodramatic work highlights the transitory nature of all things. All that remains of a once grand Gothic abbey is the soaring arch of the nave which hovers ghostlike in the center of the composition. Around the ruins are vast oaks reaching out broken limbs toward the church like desperate spectral worshipers. Not only are the trees ancient, gnarled, and denuded by winter, but one also senses that they are not healthy oaks (a tree surgeon would probably shake his head sadly at their prospects). The abbey grounds have been transformed into a cemetery and the monks trudge through the necropolis like tiny insects dwarfed by the desolate trees, the headstones, and the abandoned church. Monasticism was on its way out in Germany when Friedrich painted this, and it is deliberately anachronistic. The monks too may be ghosts.

There is a final meta-layer to this vanitas painting. As you have noticed, the photograph of the work is black and white. This is because it is an old photograph which was taken before the painting itself was destroyed in an American air raid on Berlin during the chaos of 1945.  The lack of color suits both the composition and the theme: one imagines that Friedrich might appreciate the irony, if he were not himself gone, like everything in this painting and the painting itself.

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.

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Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

Neptune's Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

Neptune’s Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

It is absolutely freezing here in Brooklyn—a great vortex of bitter Arctic air has swirled south across huge swathes of the nation.  The temperature here is 9° Fahrenheit (or -13° Celsius).  Imagine how much worse things are in Minnesota, where it is -14° Fahrenheit (or -25° Celsius).  Brrr!  It hurts my fingers to write about it–even in my overheated study (well—bedroom, really).  Now truly stretch your mind from the frozen heartland of America to the edge of the planetary solar system.  The largest moon of the ice giant Neptune is the moon Triton, discovered in 1846 by English astronomer/brewer William Lassell, and named for the son of Poseidon.  On the surface of Triton temperatures plunge to 36…which is to say 36 K (Kelvin). To translate that is -237° Celsius or a bone chilling -395° Fahrenheit.

Artist's rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Artist’s rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Triton is a strange moon.  It is the seventh largest moon in the solar system and it is the only large moon to orbit its planet in a direction opposite from the planet’s rotation (which is called a retrograde orbit).  Since there is no model for retrograde moons forming from accretion disks, Triton must be a captured object from the Oort cloud—and, indeed, the moon is extremely similar in composition to Pluto and other dwarf planets of the Solar system’s distant periphery.  Despite the extreme cold of Triton’s surface, the moon is geologically active.  Like Earth, the moon is probably differentiated into layers: a core, a mantle, and a crust.  The crust is formed of ice: frozen water, methane, and nitrogen.  A large polar cap covers the southern pole, but much of the rest of the moon is a“cantaloupe” surface of melted and refrozen ice.  The surface is (geologically) young.  Cryovolcanic activity and tidal forces have kept the ice active.  Cryovolcanoes were first spotted on Triton during the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989 (the first time such phenomenon were ever observed).  Because of tidal warming (caused by gravitational interaction with Neptune), Triton may have once had a liquid ocean beneath the crust, but this has likely solidified assuming that there is no radioactive decay from the rocky core.

A size comparison of Earth, Earth's moon, and Triton

A size comparison of Earth, Earth’s moon, and Triton

Triton is closer to Neptune than the Earth’s moon is to Earth…and Neptune is seventeen times more massive than Earth.  This doesn’t bode well for the long term future of Triton.  Within the next three and a half billion years, the moon will either be pulled into Neptune’s surface and swallowed or it will be ripped to pieces and form a spectacular ring structure like Saturn’s.

Detail from "Medicine" (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Detail from “Medicine” (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Earlier this month we featured a post about Robert William’s painting “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown” an enigmatic artwork which showed a sinister red-garbed clown using a golden snake to menace a pretty showgirl.  It’s a powerful painting and it provoked some enthusiastic and thoughtful comments, but it is also a painting with some real gender issues (particularly considering the clown’s menacing attitude and the showgirl’s scanty garb). To rectify the situation and even up the scales, here is an even more beautiful painting by the Vienna Secession master, Gustav Klimt.  Actually this is a detail photograph of a part of the larger painting “Medicine” which Klimt painted in 1901.  Sadly the original painting was destroyed by the S.S. in 1945, but photos and sketches of the original still exist.  The woman in red is the goddess Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius.  Worshiped by Romans as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, she holds a sacred golden snake, the ancient symbol of healing and looks haughtily down at the viewer.  Her strange lovely red and gold garb highlights her divinity and otherworldliness. Likewise the golden swirls on her dress and the red ribbons in her elaborately coiffed hair suggest a hidden world of medical secrets.

Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are venerable faiths, but Chinese culture is so ancient that there are much older religious beliefs which are still part of the social framework. Some of these gods and legends have become part of the newer religions of East Asia (particularly of Taoism, with its mystic animist bent); other figures endure in popular culture and folklore—like Chang‘e, goddess of the moon; and some of the truly old legends have become hopelessly confused. Such a figure is Hundun, an ancient featureless chaos god, whose blandness and confused nature have made his name a synonym for a hopeless muddle.

There are several conflicting myths about Hundun, but the most ancient is the most powerful. It serves as a troubling warning to do-gooders everywhere. The story was told in the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings made around 370 BC during the tumultuous warring states period. The Oxford handbook of Chinese mythology describes how the story “portrays Hundun as the god of the central region who has not a single aperture. Shu (literally meaning ‘fast’) was god of the south sea while Hu (‘swift’) was the god of the north sea. They often met each other at the central region reigned by Hundun. Hundun treated them very well so Shu and Hu hoped to pay a debt of gratitude to him.” The two gods decided that a being who did not have any orifices would certainly want a mouth for eating and ears with which to hear and nose for breathing and so forth. The gods surprised their quiet friend by chiseling a new orifice for him every day for a week. Unfortunately on the seventh day Hundun died from the massive trauma. It’s a gory and effective version of the “physician, do no harm” injunction!

However, this is not the only story about the being:  other versions of Hundun, just as confusing and disturbing, have sprung up over the years. In another myth Hundun was a sort of earless, eyeless beardog with a mouth but without internal organs. This disquieting entity would run up against the virtuous and slam against them–however it was fawning towards the wicked. Yet another story describes Hundun as a yellow bag with six vermilion feet and four cinnabar wings. This red-yellow being (again lacking a head and face) knew how to dance and sing, but seems to have few other characteristics.

The real nature of the original deity behind Hundun is thus rather obscure. What is obvious from the similarities of all three versions is that Hundun was a faceless deity unguided by conventional (or even recognizable) sensory input. Today in China “hundun” refers to something or someone which is muddleheaded (or to a sort of shrimp dumpling/wonton). I find the legend compelling because it relates to the types of life I write about. Humankind often thinks of mollusks as beings devoid of higher senses or of neural functions (neither characterization is always correct at all). The idea that someone (or something) which perceives differently from us lacks perception is commonplace but often inaccurate. Hu and Wu’s accidental murder of Hundun is also disturbing. It seems like an excellent metaphor for destroying something before understanding it (which humans excel at).

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